What it Takes: Recognizing the Downside to Raising Children in Affluence
What does it take to keep our kids safe, happy, healthy, and strong in a seemingly ever-complicated world of mixed media messages, strong peer influences, and varied pressures from the outside world? First, a story: I grew up in an affluent community with well-meaning parents who provided me and my brothers everything we could ever want or need. I went to the best schools in the county that held the title to championships for every sports and academic award known to man. I remember feeling almost sorry that kids in less affluent communities didn’t have the kind of opportunities that we did, but I learned early on that my community had its own set of problems that lay just underneath the surface. By the time I was 18 I had friends who had been killed in horrific accidents, who had overdosed on drugs, and who had taken their own lives. All of this seemed so bizarre to me then because I was always under the impression that we were supposed to be the ‘lucky ones’.
When I worked as a therapist in Coronado, one particular Soulthern California affluent community, I was quite struck by the relevance of my own experience and have since garnered an insatiable desire to know how to be of help to our particular group of kids. My quest for knowledge led me to a piece of groundbreaking research that studied children living in communities like these (Children of the Affluent: Challenges to Well-Being. Luthar SS, Latendresse Columbia University, 2005). The study followed three groups of youth from prospering communities and contrasted these findings with statistics from inner-city and low-income neighborhoods. Researchers found that children in affluent communities manifested elevated rates of depression, substance-abuse, and anxiety, all of which predispose them to unhealthy high-risk behaviors. Researchers went on to hypothesize the reasons behind these unexpected findings and discovered that among affluent youth there was a high degree of achievement pressure, physical/emotional isolation from adults, reluctance to seek help, overscheduling stresses and unhealthy competitive lifestyles. The solutions to these identified problems are many but we must first start with the basics.
First, we must see that each of our kids has a unique set of skills and talents all their own. We know that not everyone will get straight A’s, excel in varsity sports, get into an Ivy League school, or be obvious enough in their excellence that they get other awards or recognitions. During my years working in Coronado, I met some really great kids with amazing hearts and strong character who fly just under the radar and have no idea how impressive they truly are. Our kids are gems; each and every one of them. Some are neatly polished and some shine greatly under a rough exterior. To the untrained eye, some of these gems look just like your common every-day rock. But I have yet to meet one who didn’t possess a special light inside of them just waiting to grow brighter.
Second, we know that life is hard, and for our kids, it is harder. Not because their problems are greater than that of an adult, but because they have absolutely no frame of reference for the emotional turmoil that they experience. They haven’t yet learned how pain ebbs and flows or how they can experience discomfort and grow gracefully through it. Further, in a high-functioning culture where everyone else seems to ‘have it all together’, kids who feel emotional distress feel an even greater sense of emotional dissonance and isolation from the seemingly perfect picture that surrounds them. Combine this with an-every day bombardment of complicated mixed media messages, strong peer influences, and varied pressures from parents, teachers, and our culture at large, and what you have is a group of kids and parents who are just trying to do what they can to get by, feel good, and make the best of these trying times.
We recognize that the children in affluent communities most often have a tremendous amount of opportunity and community support. However, opportunity is only as good as it is recognized and support is only as good as it is utilized. We know that the affleunece of any one community does not protect our children from the problems of the 21st century and that we must all be honest, open, and willing enough to see both the positive effects as well as the negative consequences of the culture in which we live. We must be willing to see when our children experience challenges and recognize this as an opportunity for growth rather than as a shameful disappointment. Most importantly, we must all be diligent in our efforts to spot smoke signals that indicate possible trouble even if everything seems ok on the surface. We must remember the fragility of our children and never take their suffering too lightly, for as they say, it is always better to be safe than sorry.
In short, living in affluence does not automatically protect ourselves or our children from trouble. On the contrary, the compelling research reveals that affluent culture may predispose our children to additonal risks. But risks are only a threat if we cease to recognize and prepare for them in advance. By recognizing the unique talents of our children, addressing the unavoidable stresses of growing up, and making it easier for our children to reach out and ask for help, we can truly give our children the best opportunities we can afford.