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The problems of affluent teens

In our country, and in our politics, we tend to talk a great deal about the risks of poverty. However, we may be ignoring the problems that come with affluence, particularly among our teenagers. Cottle

Research that has taken a look at the problems of different groups of adolescents found that the affluent teens turned out to fare significantly more poorly than their counterparts of low socioeconomic status on all indicators of substance use, including hard drugs. Other researchers have since corroborated the findings of high alcohol use, binge-drinking, and marijuana use among offspring of well-educated, white, high-income, two-parent families. But substance use is not the only errant behavior among children of privilege. Researchers also found:

  • Comparable levels of wrong-doing among well-off suburban students and inner city youths.
  • Serious levels of depression, anxiety or somatic symptoms occur twice as often or more among these boys and girls, compared to national rates.
  • Display of high levels of depressive and anxiety symptoms, self-injuring behavior such as cutting and burning, and rule-breaking behaviors.
  • Across geographical areas and public and private schools, upper-middle-class youngsters show alarmingly high rates of serious disturbance.

    Education and money may have once served as buffers against distress, but that is no longer the case. Something fundamental has changed: The evidence suggests that the privileged young are much more vulnerable today than in previous generations. And the evidence all points to one cause underlying the different disturbances documented: pressure for high-octane achievement.

    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 for whom expectations are especially high. Adolescents of affluence want to meet the standard of living they are used to.

    The first signs of problems emerge around seventh grade, when they are almost 13 years old. By this age, 7 percent 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. The seventh grade is also a developmental marker for when children begin to think seriously about their long-term life goals.

    Whence the unrelenting pressure? Some comes from families. There are certain high-pressure traps that white-collar parents, more than others, can fall into. The first is excessive emphasis on children’s accomplishments. From the perspective of teenagers, the high pressure for achievement is 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.

    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.

    It is not family wealth per se but living in the cultural context of affluence that confers risk. Impossibly high expectations are transmitted not only by parents but by the entire community — teachers, schools, coaches and peers.

    It is important to consider the balance of helping our children find success without feeling extreme amounts of pressure. It is one of the challenges that can come with raising a family in an affluent setting, one that requires awareness and open conversation.

    Lexie Ainge Cottle, M.A., LPCI, is a Lake Oswego resident who grew up in Lake Oswego and now has a private practice in professional counseling as part of the Compassionate Counseling Center in Tigard. She can be reached at 503-400-1512 or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..



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