Teens: Suburban Blues

A report from the suburbs has some surprising news about children growing up in the culture of affluence. It's a longitudinal study and the interesting finding is that the kids have a multitude of adjustment problems. The surprise is that they often have more problems than age-matched kids growing up in the inner city—and their problems persist despite the mental health services presumably available to them.

Beyond a certain point, the researchers found, the pursuit of status and material wealth by high-earning families (say, $120,000 and above) tends to leave skid marks on the kids, but in ways you might not have expected. Affluent suburban high schoolers not only smoke more, drink more, and use more hard drugs than typical high schoolers do—they do so more than a comparison group of inner-city kids. In addition, they have much higher rates of anxiety and, in general, higher rates of depression.

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Among affluent suburban girls, rates of depression skyrocket—they are three times more likely than average teen girls to report clinically significant levels of depression. And for all problems, the troubles seem to start in the seventh grade. Before then, the affluent kids do well.

Interestingly, among the upper-middle-class suburban kids, but not among the inner-city kids, use of alcohol and drugs is linked with depression and anxiety. That raises the possibility that substance use is an attempt to self-medicate.

What's more, this so-called negative-affect type of substance use tends to endure; it doesn't disappear after the teen years. The researchers also found that among the suburban boys, popularity with peers went hand in hand with substance use.

What's it all about? In part, the affluent kids are responding to achievement pressures. Rates of depression, anxiety, and substance use were high among those whose families overemphasized their accomplishments and who saw achievement failures as personal failures.

Isolation—emotional as well as literal—from adults also played a big role. Where the demands of the parents' own professional careers eroded relaxed family time, and the kids shuttled between various after-school activities, distress and substance use among the young were high.

Accessibility counts. "A common assumption is that parents are more accessible to high- than to low-income youth, but our data showed otherwise," the researchers reported. Wealthier kids didn't feel closer to parents or spend more time with them at the dinner table, for example.

Eating dinner with at least one parent on most nights turned out to be a big deal. It predicted both adjustment and school performance—at both economic extremes.

Why do affluent kids have so many problems if their families can easily afford to get professional help for them? Maybe, the investigators suggested on the basis of other research, the parents aren't eager to delve into problems that are not conspicuous—unless symptoms include those that inconvenience adults, such as disobedience.

Privacy concerns and embarrassment may also keep parents from attending to invisible problems. They may need to maintain a veneer of well-being. Then there are all the inconveniences of daily life that impede them—the demands of their very high-powered careers that provide so well for their families. "Few families would blithely repudiate such rewards," the researchers concede.

Here's the kicker: Even if the kids of the affluent got all the mental health care they need, something irreplaceably protective would still be missing from their lives: strong attachments with parents. Research shows that you can't relieve "crystallized maladjustment" as long as kids' everyday lives still present major challenges.

So what's to be done? First and foremost, say the researchers, be aware of the costs of overscheduled and competitive lifestyles. Second, understand the risks affluence poses to healthy adjustment of children. And a third measure seems self-evident: Make dinner a command performance for all family members.

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