America’s Affluent Teen Crisis

Why more money may mean more mental health problems for teens.

Posted Dec 09, 2014

How much would you pay for your teen to be able to thrive emotionally? Ten thousand dollars? Your entire IRA? Turns out all the money in the world may not be enough to protect your most prized possession from anxiety, depression and substance use. According to research, the more money in your bank account may mean the less adept he is at weathering the pressure to succeed at school, in sports, and at home.

This research has its roots in a 1999 study involving two samples of 10th graders - those from low-income, urban families and high-income, suburban families. Findings showed that on several fronts the wealthy children fared more poorly than did their low-income counterparts.  Specifically, they reported much higher levels of cigarette, alcohol, and marijuana use as well as significantly greater anxiety; in addition, suburban girls reported startlingly high levels of depression (Luthar & D'Avanzo, 1999). Since then, these findings have been replicated over and over again. 

Other negative behaviors cited include random acts of rule breaking (stealing from friends and family, and defacing property, as opposed to fighting and carrying weapons, which is more common among poor youth), and a higher level of envy among females.

Providing counseling on both ends of the wealth spectrum, nothing has informed my world view like the poor teens with psychosocial stressors that no kid should ever endure. Lack of access to mental health support perpetuates the cycle of mental illness, in addition to subpar schools, domestic violence, single-parent familes, and dangerous neighborhoods. When these kids use substances or self-injure, it’s less shocking than when affluent youth show up in the counseling or dean’s offices at school.

Why do kids without apparent stress, stress about their lives?

According to researcher and psychologist Dr. Suniya Luthar, there is no linear cause. “People have a tendency to say ‘Oh, it’s the parents,’ and I cannot think of something that is more misguided than to pick on either the parents or the schools. There is not a single unitary factor that will explain all of this. It is a problem that derives from multiple levels. Let’s start with American society and what our values are. What is it that admissions people value in making the selections? It’s all about accomplishments and achievements. So the bottom line is it is not just the family, it is not just the child, it is the culture we live in. The universities, the schools. Everybody coming together to reinforce that one big message. If you can, therefore you must. Do not stop.”

How to Stop Affluent Teens from Spiraling Out of Control

Just as money won’t buy happiness, money is not the root of all evil. Adults (of any socioeconomic level) can help teens cope with stress by doing the following:

1. Praise them for their efforts, rather than their accomplishments. If she gave an A+ effort, but only earned a B- on the chemistry exam, recognize the hard work she exerted. When your self-esteem is dependent upon how much you accomplish, two things happen: You feel inadequate when you don’t succeed, and you live in a constant fear of not achieving. This can cause depression, which can lead to self-medicating to cope with stress.

2. Check your value system. Are you saying one thing, but subtly communicating another? Do you compliment her grades, but then ask how her best friend fared? Do you lecture him about underage drinking, but down three glasses of wine with dinner? Kids pay attention to actions more than words. What do you communicate when you’re not talking?

3. Raise decent human beings. Teach values aligned with caring about the wellbeing of others, and not just about being first to the finish line. Model kindness, compassion, caring and gratitude. Studies of teens who had high levels of gratitude when entering high school had less negative emotions and depression and more positive emotions, life satisfaction, and happiness four years later when they were finishing high school. They also had more hope and a stronger sense of meaning in life. Additionally, feeling grateful motivates adolescents to help others and use their strengths to contribute to society.

4. Focus more on teaching social and emotional intelligence and less on rewarding competition. Not all little league allstars will grow up to be baseball phenoms, just as most vocal girls will never become the next Ariana Grande. But all kids need to know how to play fair and how to get along with others.

5. Encourage breaks. During a high school PTA presentation I gave around teens and stress recently, the topic of sleep deprivation came up. The latest school trend was a competition to see who could stay up all night doing homework.

6. Listen without an agenda. Let him be him — a unique human being, and not a possession to project your unresolved hopes and dreams. Isolation (physical and emotional) from parents is a contributing factor to teen depression.

As a mom of a teen, I get caught up in the success trap, too. When the parental comparison game threatens to take up mental real estate, I think back to a conversation with a friend. While lamenting the academic pressures of our then-first graders, she said, “There’s no need to stress about whether our kids will get into this dual immersion class, or that gifted program. Our kids will get a quality education. They may not make it into Stanford or Yale, but they’re going to college.”

To quote Dr. Luthar, “Life does not begin and end at being at the top.”


Linda Esposito, LCSW is the founder of Team Happy at Get the latest mental wellness and positive psychology updates by clicking here.

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