Children of affluent parents feel a relentless sense of pressure that plays out in excessive substance use, and in crippling anxiety and depression about anticipated or perceived 'failures'. Photo: Getty Images
It is widely accepted that youth living in poverty are at risk of developing social, emotional and behavioural problems. Experiencing poverty before age five is especially deleterious. But increasingly, US research shows, significant problems are occurring at the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, among youth en route to prestigious universities and high-status careers.
These are young people from communities dominated by white-collar, well-educated parents. They attend schools distinguished by rich academic curricula, high standardised test scores and diverse extracurricular opportunities. The parents' annual income, at $US150,000 and more, is well over twice the American average. And yet they show serious levels of maladjustment as teens, displaying problems that tend to get worse as they approach college.
Monied teens generally have easier access to substances, ample money to purchase them, good entree to providers, and the best fake IDs.
In the mid-1990s, I was recruiting youth in a prosperous suburban community in the north-east of the US as a comparison sample for a study of inner-city teens. Much to my surprise, the affluent teens fared significantly worse than teens from lower socio-economic backgrounds on all indicators of substance use, including hard drugs. I later replicated those findings among year 10 students in a different north-east suburb. And other researchers have since corroborated the findings of high alcohol use and marijuana use among children of well-educated, white, high-income, two-parent families.
The first signs of problems emerge around seventh grade, when they are almost 13. Photo: Rodger Cummins
But substance use is not the only errant behaviour among privileged children. Crime is also widely assumed to be a problem of impoverished youth, but I have found comparable levels of wrongdoing among well-off suburban students and inner-city youth. What does differ are the types of rule-breaking – widespread cheating and random acts of delinquency, such as stealing from parents or peers, are more common among the rich, while poor teens are apt to commit crimes related to self defence, such as carrying a weapon.
Wealthy children have serious internalising problems as well. In 1999, I reported significant depression in one in five girls. Since then, studies I have conducted show that, on average, serious levels of depression, anxiety or physical symptoms occur twice as often or more among these boys and girls, compared to national rates.
They display high levels of depressive and anxiety symptoms, self-injurious behaviour such as cutting and burning, and rule-breaking behaviours. The bottom line: across geographical areas and public and private schools, upper-middle-class youngsters show alarmingly high rates of serious disturbance.
The high rate of maladjustment among affluent adolescents is strikingly counterintuitive. There is a tacit assumption that education and money procure well-being, and that if children falter, they will swiftly get the appropriate services. Education and money may once have served as buffers against distress but that is no longer the case. Something fundamental has changed: evidence suggests the privileged young are much more vulnerable today than in previous generations.
The evidence all points to one cause: pressure for high-octane achievement. The children of affluent parents expect to excel at school, in multiple extracurricular activities and also in their social lives. They feel a relentless sense of pressure that plays out in excessive substance use, and in crippling anxiety and depression about anticipated or perceived "failures".
It isn't as if these youngsters need the money. For many, it may well be a plea: "Please give me a break, I can't handle this all." It's as if the pressure cooker is about to explode. It's true, the pressure to do well in school and get into a prestigious college is shared by many teens. But maintaining the mantle of success is a special imperative for the well-off. Affluent adolescents want to meet the standard of living they are used to.
What's more, achievement of their extremely lofty goals is tantalisingly within reach, which renders it all the more obligatory. There are few accomplishments that privilege can't bolster, whether it's improved test scores or squash skills, and affluent parents acquire whatever coaching is necessary to achieve the very best. The life credo of these youths becomes: "I can, therefore I must."
Interestingly, before adolescence, affluent youths are no more troubled than others. The first signs of problems emerge around seventh grade, when they are almost 13. By this age, 7 per cent of these boys are using marijuana and getting drunk at least once a month. And symptoms of depression and anxiety begin to rise, especially among girls. Some experimentation with alcohol and drugs is normal for teens. But monied adolescents generally have easier access to substances, ample money to purchase them, good entree to providers, and the best fake IDs.
Then there are peer norms. "Getting wasted" is often expected at social gatherings. There is also often collusion by some parents, who are all too willing to bail out their teens if discovered by authorities. Not surprisingly, high schoolers who anticipate meagre consequences from their parents are among the heaviest substance users. The seventh grade is also a developmental marker for when children begin to think seriously about their long-term life goals. With the capacity for abstract thinking, youths about 13 begin grappling with the critical question of "Who am I?"
In hypercompetitive, upper-middle-class communities, this broad question narrowly morphs into, "What will I amount to?"
By secondary school, these youths come to believe there is one path to ultimate happiness – having money – which in turn requires attending a prestigious university. They grow preoccupied with becoming marketable commodities, pursuing activities that will look good on resumes. There is scant time for exploration of who they are as individuals or for nurturing unique interests.
Some of the pressure comes from families. There are certain high-pressure traps white-collar parents, more than others, fall into. The first is excessive emphasis on children's accomplishments. Most parents want their children to enjoy the same benefits they have been fortunate enough to receive from their own rich educational experiences and professional careers.
Wanting children to do the best they are capable of is certainly appropriate. But too often, what parents want is over the top. When children feel that their parents disproportionately value personal successes (in today's grades or tomorrow's careers) far more than they value their personal decency and kindness, the children show elevated symptoms of depression and anxiety.
For children, perceived parental pride in them, and thus their own self-worth, rests largely – perilously – on achieving and maintaining "star" status. The message they hear from the parents is not, "Sweetheart, do the best you're capable of." Instead, it is, "You had better score while the [talent] scout's at today's game," or "You've got to ace the test today; you fell behind last semester." Such critical messages do not even need words; they can be conveyed by a raised eyebrow or a turned back in response to a judged failure.
The high pressure for achievement is thus experienced as parental criticism. Children come to feel that any failure to accomplish will seriously diminish the acceptance and esteem with which their parents regard them.
The perception of parental criticism is so consistently related to young people's attitudes about themselves that we measure it in every sample we study: "I am punished for doing things less than perfectly." "My parents never try to understand my mistakes." Perceived parental criticism is linked with a variety of adjustment problems: depressive and anxiety symptoms as well as acting-out behaviours.
It's important to note that adult criticism is not annulled by attention or even affection. Parents might think it's OK to keep the pressure on because they eat dinner together and attend all their children's athletic events and performances. But such positive gestures do not cancel out criticism.
Psychologists have firmly established that disparaging words or attitudes have a much stronger impact than words of praise – by at least a factor of three. Parents, however, are but one part of the equation. Impossibly high expectations are transmitted not only by well-off parents but by the entire community – teachers, schools, coaches, and peers.
Athletic coaches can be fiercely invested in a team's star status; as one captain said: "Our coach tells me all the time that the whole team depends on me to win the championship. Before every game, he tells me that I am the backbone of the entire team and if I don't play well, the team will give up."
Teachers and guidance counsellors push for the highest possible scores. Real estate prices depend on standardised test scores maintained in suburban schools.
In upper-middle-class settings, kids who have the gumption to defy certain rules achieve high status among their schoolmates. The freshman who can chug down a six-pack after a baseball game, the sophomore who has made it with many of the hottest girls – they command wide respect in the peer group.
But there are double standards based on gender. Particularly distressing are the double standards about physical appearance. Across the board, the more attractive kids are more likely to be most popular with their peers. But in our research, we have found that links between peer admiration and beauty were almost twice as strong among affluent girls as compared with affluent boys, and also compared with inner-city girls and boys.
The enormous pressures that well-off girls face from the peer group are matched by the impossibly high demands from adults to succeed in domains that are traditionally male and also in the "feminine" domains of caring and kindness. They must not only be highly accomplished but also polite and likable. Daughters of the rich, therefore, strive for effortless perfection, which is ultimately soul-draining.
It is not surprising, therefore, that girls are more troubled than boys. In general, girls and women show their upset in internalising problems, such as depression and anxiety. Affluent girls, however, show serious symptoms also in the most typically male forms, by acting out – rule-breaking, delinquency, and alcohol and drug use. Today's girls are involved in cheating scandals. They drink and do drugs. They have eating disorders. They steal from parents and friends. They are overrepresented across all domains of maladjustment. They have it all.
By no means are boys immune; they too face gender-specific challenges as they negotiate the culture of affluence. Rich boys can be disturbingly preoccupied with gaining power in the peer group, which becomes tied, by late adolescence, to grandstanding via money and sex. Through high school, social dominance is related to good looks, athletics, and the "cool" factor of substance use. In college it becomes more about wealth. Moneyed young men are most likely to achieve the ultimate alpha male stamp – being desired by many girls.
Striving ever harder to be at the top puts such boys at risk for limited compassion and kindness. They can have low capacity for tenderness in close relationships, high capacity for chauvinism and narcissism. In a recent study, we found that narcissistic exhibitionism scores among affluent boys at elite private schools were almost twice the average scores of a more diverse sample.
Why is it that high socio-economic status brings more risk for young people today than it once did? There have been major shifts in aspirations and cultural values towards materialism that can be especially pronounced among the affluent.
In 1967, for example, 86 per cent of college freshmen rated "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" as an essential life goal. In 2004, only 42 per cent of freshmen agreed with them. Over that time, values such as "being well-off financially" and "attaining prestigious jobs" rose equivalently in importance.
Again, aspiring for status is likely highest among youth in upper-middle-class communities. Also, the ultimate goal of getting into a good college is decidedly more competitive today than it used to be. Among top-tier colleges, the number of applicants has doubled or tripled over the past five years.
Privileged adolescents tend to define being well-off relative to what they see in their own parents. But in today's economy, it is much more difficult to maintain one's parents' standard of living. As one high school student said, "I want to make what my dad does, so I must get into Wharton. By 30 or 35, I should be making at least a quarter of a million a year."
One of the most established facts of psychology is that people evaluate themselves by comparing themselves with others. Wealth is relative in that we adopt the standards of our own immediate contexts, comparing ourselves with those we see doing better than us.
The phenomenon of relative deprivation thus becomes a psychological cost of life in the fast lane, surrounded by the extremely successful. "We compare ourselves with each other all the time. We know who made the AP [Advance Placement] classes and who dropped out because they couldn't keep up," says a student. "And we know everyone's top choices of colleges. In my grade, two other athlete-scholars want to go to Duke; we never talk about it openly, but we're constantly weighing our own chances of beating them and getting in."
Enter envy. Compared to inner-city counterparts, students at elite schools, especially girls, experienced significantly more envy of peers who they felt surpassed them in popularity, attractiveness, academics and sports. The intense push for super achievement deprives affluent adolescents of one of the critical safety valves of life – the deep social connectedness of friendship.
The durability, sustainability, and strength of relationships are constantly threatened by competition for highly sought-after goals. There's only one valedictorian. How can two people be friends if the self-worth of both depends on being the one chosen for a sought-after goal?
Yet another contribution to vulnerability may be an inflated sense of control over one's life.
As my colleague Barry Schwartz has shown, affluence leads people to believe they are wholly responsible for their own success. The wealthier people become, the more they believe that they can control many aspects of their life and design exactly the kind of life they want. They come to expect perfection.
Parents' overestimation of what they can actually control is reflected in the illusions harboured by their children – that one more achievement will push them over the edge to success, acceptance to a top-ranked college. Any "failure" on any of these fronts can bring a rush of self-blame, shame, and depression.
Why should we care about the problems of rich kids? Most importantly, because no child should be left behind, regardless of parental education or income. Any young person who remains in anguish deserves and needs adult intervention. Minimising the problems of rich kids is as ill-founded as accepting death by guns as just what happens to inner-city youth.
Further, today's highly educated youths will disproportionately hold positions of power in the next generation. Their values will disproportionately shape norms in education, politics, and business.
The distress and substance use children are experiencing can have considerable long-term costs. At a societal level, people who are unhappy, with a fragile sense of self, can be more acquisitive than philanthropic, more focused on gaining more for themselves than on improving the lot of others.
Addressing the problem is not easy; it will require changes at multiple levels, from secondary and higher education to individual families. At high-achieving schools, the leadership needs to understand that relentless pursuit of star status can powerfully thwart the well-being of students. Parents must play a central role in mitigating pressures on children.
They have the power to help children remain grounded in a value system that emphasises decency and kindness as much as getting ahead. The importance of this task is paralleled by its difficulty: it takes an enormous amount of strength to be a lone parental voice amid a community crescendo of "Do More!"
For some highly educated adults, a sense of success as parents rests on the splendour of their children's accomplishments. That is not a healthy burden for them. Or for parents.
In shaping the next generation, parents would do well to ponder: prestige, power, privilege – at what price?
Money can’t buy happiness
US research shows children of affluent parents are increasingly likely to develop serious problems as teens.
Problems include substance abuse, cheating and random acts of delinquency, such as stealing from parents or peers. Poor teens are more likely to commit crimes related to self-defence, such as carrying a weapon.
Many wealthy children also experience significant depression or anxiety, with physical symptoms occurring more than twice as often as the national average among children from families on annual incomes above $US150,000 ($165,000).