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Teachers College, Columbia University
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The Consequences of Great Expectations

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Suniya Luthar, Professor of Psychology and Education

Suniya Luthar, Professor of Psychology and Education
Photo by Heather Van Uxem Lewis

A new study by TC's Suniya Luthar and colleagues confirms elevated rates of substance abuse, depression and other problems among affluent youth

In 2009, when the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry published an editorial statement proclaiming the rapid spread of “affluenza” – described as “a metaphorical illness connoting hyper-investment in material wealth, among upper-middle class, white-collar families” – it was directly alluding, in part, to the research of Teachers College psychologist Suniya Luthar.

Over the past decade, Luthar has extensively studied U.S. suburban teens from the northeastern part of the country. In a corollary to others’ findings that poverty does not automatically breed depressed, substance-abusing youth, Luthar’s research, in her own words, has suggested “a parallel postulate at the other end of the socioeconomic status… that family wealth can connote significant risks to adolescents’ adjustment.”

Now, in a new paper published in April in Development and Psychopathology, Luthar and Samuel H. Barkin, a first-year doctoral student in Luthar’s lab, offer new evidence that “affluenza” is real and distinctly non-metaphorical – and that it exists in other parts of the country, as well.  In a study that included teens from suburbs in the northwest, as well as from a large northeastern city and northeastern suburbs, Luthar and Barkin found rates of negative behaviors and symptoms in each group that were higher than the national norms. The negative behaviors include drug and alcohol use, particularly in the East Coast samples, in which over half of the girls and two-thirds of the boys reported being drunk at least once in the past year, compared with about one third of all youth nationally.

The study also confirmed that children of affluent parents exhibit unexpectedly high rates of emotional problems beginning in junior high school. Among northwestern suburban teens, in particular, incidence of “internalizing and externalizing symptoms” were especially high, with girls in all regions reporting higher levels of all internalizing symptoms – depression, alienation from parents – than did boys.

The new study by Luthar and Barkin also went further than past efforts in suggesting cause-and-effect relationships between parenting strategies and behaviors, on the one hand, and youth behavior and symptoms on the other. As Luthar’s previous work has suggested, the study confirmed that proactive parental discipline, rather than close parent-teen relationships, is the biggest deterrent to teen substance abuse.

“Across all samples, youth reported high levels of use when they felt their parents were lax in consequences for substance abuse,” the authors write.

However, excessive criticism or harshness by parents had a particularly toxic effect: “Of the affective indicators of parent-child relationships, parent criticism was the only dimension that showed relatively strong associations across subgroup analyses… Acrimony from parents to children is highly destructive, especially if it is a consistent pattern.”
Perhaps most interestingly, the researchers offered a new twist on previous studies that have shown that depression among parents can strongly affect teens. In the sample groups in the new study, “perceived father depression consistently emerged as a unique, significant predictor across multiple maladjustment outcomes among affluent boys.”

At the same time, the new study debunked some myths about affluent youth. The researchers found that supposed stress from over-scheduling and too many extracurricular activities “is not a major vulnerability factor.” Also, while Luthar and Barkin did find – as is popularly imagined – that some wealthy parents are apt to “bail out” their teens who get in trouble, they also established that there is no link between teens’ own perception that parents will bail them out and any increase in negative behavior. That finding, in turn, helps explain what may seem a paradoxical conclusion by the researchers: that the elevated risks among wealthy teens do not, on the whole, stem from poor parenting among affluent parents in general.

The new study “by no means implies that all, or even most, wealthy youth are troubled, or that most of their parents are deficient in any way,” the authors write. “To the contrary, we have explicitly asserted that our data counter presumptions of generally poor parenting in wealthy communities.” Rather, the elevated rates of negative behaviors and symptoms among wealthy youth reflect extreme laxness or harshness among distinct sub-groups of parents, and more importantly, “the relentless pressures of upward mobility in the culture of affluence – or what Kasser [Timothy Kasser, a psychologist at Knox College in Illinois] has called ‘The American Nightmare.’”


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