Affluenza is a term describing a “metaphorical illness” whereby children or teens who grow up in a privileged lifestyle, largely isolated emotionally and developmentally from their working parents, feel excessive pressure to achieve in both academic and extracurricular activities. This can make children feel more isolated than their friends, while at the same time feeling an increase in pressure to perform. The result? Greater depression, anxiety and substance or alcohol abuse compared to their friends.
Researchers don’t generally refer to this as affluenza, but rather as problems growing up in a culture of affluence. There is no official diagnosis of “affluenza,” and research into this phenomenon is fairly scarce.
One of the more well-known researchers in this area is Suniya Luthar at Arizona State University. She’s conducted more than a half-dozen studies examining the problems of upper-class children, comparing their neglect in psychology research to the neglect of studying children in poverty before the 1970s (Luthar & Latendresse, 2005).
Recent Research on Affluent Youth
What Luthar and fellow researcher Sam Barkin (2012) found in their most recent study on this population was that parents who knew of their kids’ drug or alcohol use and didn’t do anything about it was a big risk factor for affluent children and teens. Turning a blind eye to your teenager’s drinking — or acting as though it’s no big deal — is likely to increase maladjustment and emotional distress in them.
The researchers also noted that, “Overall, adolescents’ symptom levels were more strongly related to their relationships with mothers than with fathers. An exception was boys’ apparent vulnerability to fathers’ […] perceived depressive symptoms.” If a teenaged boy saw their dad as being depressed, they were more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and substance/alcohol abuse.
Contrary to the original thinking about “affluenza,” scheduling a lot of extracurricular activities — or “overscheduling” — didn’t appear to be a risk factor in the current study (Luthar & Barkin, 2012).
“Finally,” the researchers say, “youth reports suggested that most affluent parents do not indiscriminately bail their children out of all problem situations (although a small subset, apparently, do)” (Luthar & Barkin, 2012).
Affulenza is not really a disorder unto itself, but rather refers to a set of circumstances and environmental factors that contribute to maladaptive behavior in a very small set of teenagers growing up in an affluent culture. Being at risk to “affluenza” means that these teens will typically suffer from more depression, anxiety and drug or alcohol use than their friends.
Preventing Affluenza in Your Children
The key takeaways for parents regarding affluenza is to make yourself emotionally available to your children — it’s not enough to bring home a paycheck, but to isolate yourself when home.
It’s also important to let teens know that drinking or doing drugs is not acceptable behavior while they’re living at home. Research clearly indicates that drinking alcohol and/or doing drugs will damage a child’s and teen’s normal brain and personality development. Allowing for such drinking is basically saying, “Hey, it’s okay you’re screwing up your neurodevelopment and brain.” There’s no clear way of undoing such damage, either.
Don’t just be the “cool parent.” Be the thoughtful, responsible parent, especially if your child is growing up in an affluent household. It shows that you care — which may make all the difference between a teen with “affluenza” and one without.
Luthar, SS & Barkin, SH. (2012). Are affluent youth truly ‘at risk’? Vulnerability and resilience across three diverse samples. Development and Psychopathology, 24.
Luthar, SS & Latendresse, SJ. (2005). Children of the Affluent: Challenges to Well-Being. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14.