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Does Affluence Have Its Price?

May 5, 2009

By Todd Kettler, CISD Director of Advanced Academics

A collection of recent research studies indicate that privileged teens may be more self-centered and depressed than ever before. Suniya Luthar of Columbia University’s Teachers College found that adolescents reared in suburban homes with an average family income of $120,000 report higher rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse than any other socioeconomic group of young people in America today.

One explanation that affluent adolescents are more prone to these problems is an increasingly narcissistic society. Robert Horton, a psychology professor at Wabash College says that some narcissistic traits are positive. Authority and self-sufficiency can be healthy characteristics and desirable traits. However, too much self-absorption can lead to interpersonal strife. Psychology professor Jean Twenge from San Diego State has analyzed data from the Narcissistic Personality Inventory and found that in 2006 one in four college students scored in the narcissistic range compared to one in seven in 1985. Twenge points out that narcissism is correlated with many negative outcomes, but its acceptance as a personality trait has grown significantly in recent decades.

Narcissism is on the rise in general and in particular among affluent adolescents. Family expectations also seem to be connected with negative psycho-social outcomes among affluent adolescents according to Madeline Levine, a clinical psychologist from San Franscisco. “Parents are worried that if their children don’t get into Harvard, they’re going to be standing with a tin cup on the corner somewhere,” writes Levine in her book, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. Levine also points out that when parents protect their children from disappointment early in life, the adolescents do not deal with it very well when they grow up. Another 2005 study conducted by Luthar revealed that teenagers who indicated that their parents overemphasized their accomplishments were mostly likely to be depressed or anxious and use drugs. Both Luther and Levine suggest that parents should stop obsessing about perfect grades and focus more on helping their children enjoy learning for its own sake.

For further reading:
Kindlon, D. (2001). Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age. New York: Hyperion.

Levine, M. (2006). The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. New York: HarperCollins.

Twenge, J. M. (2006). Generation Me: Why Today\’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before. New York: Free Press.

The information in this article is summarized from a longer article appearing in Monitor on Psychology, January 2009.

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