They are the top students in their classes, play varsity sports, and are editors of their school newspapers or yearbooks. They come from intact homes of married parents who have high expectations for their children and have few worries about giving their kids iPhones, laptops, and cars.
These are not students prepared to graduate from high school and head off to college, but rather teenagers sitting in psychologists’ offices throughout the nation talking about how empty they feel and how disconnected they are from their parents. They are usually suffering from depression and anxiety and are on the cusp of developing an addiction to drugs, alcohol, or food.
In her book, “The Price of Privilege,” psychologist Madeline Levine discusses what she sees as a trend among some affluent families that is sweeping across the United States. According to Levine, some well-to-do parents have become so obsessed with providing materialistically comfortable lifestyles for their children, that they have neglected to nurture their children’s own self-identities.
What the media has dubbed an “epidemic” is really a vicious cycle of parents working too hard to provide the best for their kids, and demanding that their kids work just as hard at school and sports, while the kids just want to please their parents, says Levine.
“The popular press has devoted rivers of ink to chronicling the ‘epidemic’ of narcissistic, over-involved parents producing spoiled, entitled children with poor values,” she writes. “But my experience leads me to a very different conclusion. Most of my patients are deeply troubled, not spoiled; most of their parents are not narcissistic, but are struggling, often quite alone, with their own problems.”
In order to send their children to the best schools and provide them with after-school lessons and the latest electronic gadgets, these parents need to work longer hours, thus, leaving less time for them to spend with their families, says Levine. This, in turn, has a negative effect on the kids.
“In affluent families, where social and professional demands can be highly time consuming, there is often a lack of ‘family time.’ In what some researchers call the ‘silver spoon syndrome,’ affluent kids are often painfully aware that they rate low on their parents’ ‘to-do’ list,” Levine states. “As a result, there is an inverse relationship between income and closeness to parents. Lower-socioeconomic kids are far more likely to report feeling close to their parents than kids from high socioeconomic homes.”
And the effects of this trend, Levine says, are producing dire consequences: since 1950, teenage suicide rates have quadrupled. She attributes this to parents who overly stress academics, so they can prepare their children to graduate from elite colleges and find well-paying jobs, which they feel will bring the kids a standard of living that was, in reality, much more easily obtainable 60 years ago.
Modern society continues to emphasize the idea that material wealth is a sign of success, Levine says, and families think they must always look good in the eyes of their neighbors. In addition to being able to afford expensive homes and cars, parents also want children who are model students and athletes, and have come to demand perfection from their kids. On the other hand, these parents are also overprotecting their children to the point that the kids lack the emotional and social skills necessary to survive on their own once they leave home.
“While demands for outstanding academic or extracurricular performance are very high, expectations about family responsibilities are amazingly low. This kind of imbalance in expectations results in kids who regularly expect others to ‘take up the slack,’ rather than learning themselves how to prioritize tasks or how to manage time,” Levine writes. “Tutors, coaches, counselors, and psychotherapists are all enlisted by parents to shore up performance and help ensure the kind of academic and athletic success so prized in my community.”
Consequently, some of these teens have developed such a need for acceptance from their parents that they feel they are playing roles of what is expected of them, instead of forging their own identities as individuals.
Constantly seeking approval from their parents, these teens are not learning to act instinctually and develop an inner sense of self.
“The kids I see have been given all kinds of material advantages, yet feel that they have nothing genuine to anchor their lives to,” writes Levine. “They lack spontaneity, creativity, enthusiasm, and, most disturbingly, the capacity for pleasure.”
Levine refers to many of her own case histories in her book. In one, she writes about a son who works hard to gain acceptance to his father’s Ivy League alma mater, but once he arrives on campus, he’s so miserable that he develops a drinking problem. The son ends up returning home and attending a local college where he finally studies a subject that interests him, makes friends, and finds himself a girlfriend who shares his interests and values.
Then, there is the teenage girl who is studying dance. Her father, a prominent businessman who is usually physically and emotionally absent from the home, does not take her interest in dance seriously. As a result, the teenager falls into a deep depression. It is her stay-at-home mother, also suffering from depression, who becomes her ally and supports her daughter as she pursues a career in dance.
Levine discusses case histories with which readers can identify, but she also has patients who recount unbelievable stories. In one instance, a teenager’s quiet, artistic nature was so ignored by his parents, he developed a cocaine problem in his teens. Through therapy, the teenager was able to quit his addiction, but then found cocaine in the kitchen of his home. Apparently, both his parents were abusers as well.
Levine also details an account of a teen who went on a resort vacation with his family. His parents not only decided to lodge in a separate room, they put their children in a villa at the other end of the resort. Not surprisingly, later in life, the children had difficulty dealing with their feelings of neglect and abandonment, developed serious drug addictions, and fell in trouble with the law.
Levine uses these cases to show that children desire to feel secure and loved unconditionally, and that parents need to spend quality time with their children and listen carefully to their thoughts and desires. With busy working parents and overscheduled kids, families need to slow down and create peaceful moments when they can spend meaningful time together.
Levine offers advice to these parents to help them develop better relationships with their children, saying that children crave rituals and traditions.
“Perhaps the single most important ritual a family can observe is having dinner together,” she writes. “Families who eat together five or more times a week have kids who are significantly less likely to use tobacco, alcohol, or marijuana, have higher grade point averages, less depressive symptoms, and fewer suicide attempts than families who eat together two or fewer times a week.”
Parents do not need to stay at home and not work in order to spend quality time with their children, she says, but rather, should know that an emotionally happy child most often has emotionally happy parents. She aims this specifically at mothers, since women are usually the ones who feel conflicted about their decisions to either stay at home or go back to work after their children are born.
Teenagers need clearly defined boundaries, she says, and parents should enforce household rules about curfews, completing homework, and the amount of time that children spend watching TV, texting, or using the computer. When parents do not set boundaries, she says, kids often feel that their parents don’t care enough about them to raise them more strictly.
Levine also believes that parents should have their children do chores or get part-time jobs to learn the importance of hard work as a motivating factor for achievement. She views the responsibility of holding a job as a more valuable experience for a teenager than getting a report card with straight As.
She says, however, that teenagers should make their own decisions about choosing age-appropriate clothing, friends, and extra-curricular activities. In making their own choices, teenagers gain self-confidence and a sense of independence.
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Levine’s book makes a convincing case about the parenting phenomenon that is ailing many well-to-do families nationwide. If parents really want their children to succeed, they must teach their kids to be accountable for their actions, instead of placing responsibility and blame upon others. Most importantly, families must provide a nurturing home, where their kids feel they can openly express themselves and where parents can learn to accept and love their children for who they are.
Allison Plitt is a contributing writer for New York Parenting Media and a mother living in Queens with a 6-year-old daughter. If you have ideas to share about topics for articles or resources for families, please contact her at allisonpli