Myth #1: Kids from wealthy families have fewer emotional and behavioral problems.
It is well known from decades of research that children growing up in harsh, dangerous and impoverished neighborhoods are at considerably higher risk for emotional and behavioral problems. What is less well known is that children from well educated, upper middle class families are similarly at risk. The numbers are striking, the trend disturbing, and often fly in the face of stereotypes about so-called “troubled families”.
A research team led by Dr. Suniya Luthar, Professor of Clinical and Developmental Psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College, has been exploring the links and potential causes of the problems of affluent teens since a study in 1999 uncovered the frightening facts. Comparing 10th graders from low-income inner city families with high-income suburban families, Luthar’s data revealed that the wealthy children were even more vulnerable their low-income counterparts.
Specifically, these kids reported greater use of substances, including alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana. The suburban girls reported startlingly high levels of depression (22% compared to national norms of 7%), and both boys and girls reported higher levels of anxiety. In short, we now know that there are comparable risks at both ends of the socioeconomic ladder. What might explain this?
Although it is true that some wealthy parents use their money or influence to get their kids off the hook, this is the exception not the rule. Stereotypes of overindulgence and overly soft parenting are inappropriately projected on the rich in the same way that stereotypes of laziness have been projected on the poor. The truth is there are good and bad parents in all income levels, cultures, races and neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, if parents believe that they will be blamed for the problems in their children, they will be hesitant to turn to mental health professionals for help and guidance. In our increasingly diverse, pressured and competitive society, parents need support, information, and education. Instead, they often are the targets of criticism and judgement.
Myth #3: Teenagers have always experimented with drugs and alcohol–and there is nothing a parent can do about it.
Since the goal of adolescence is to become increasingly independent, differentiating from parents and developing a sense of self has often taken the form of exploration and experimentation–whether with substances, ideas, friendships, or interests. How parents respond turns out to be highly significant (even though it’s not the whole story).
The researchers call it parental “containment,” a fancy term for holding teens to rules and consequences for alcohol or drug use. When teens know that their parents will enact significant consequences for the use of drugs and alcohol, their use is diminished. When parents say or do nothing–or even worse treat it as normal (a variation on “boys will be boys”), then substance use is more likely.
Effective parents take a stand not only about substances but also about other forms of misbehavior such as minor acts of delinquency or rudeness to adults. In my work with families, I see how much less anxious kids become when they feel contained–even though they typically protest loudly and insist that they have the strictest parents on the block.
Another part of containment is having knowledge of where your kids are and what they are doing. Sometimes suburban parents can be lulled into a sense of security given the safety of their community. Add to that how teens often deliberately withhold information from adults (or lie about it), and naive, trusting parents can be left at a disadvantage. To be effective, parents need to be vigilant and aware. For example, if you are one of those parents who has never checked out your teen’s Facebook or Tumblr page, then you might be shocked to learn what is going on right under your nose.
Myth #4: If you insist that your teenager is involved in lots of extracurricular activities, they will get into less trouble.
Many parents, in a well-meaning effort to prevent alcohol and drug use and/or unwanted sexual behavior, make sure that their kids are scheduled in activities that seem to take up every waking moment not spent doing homework. As it turns out, this does not appear to be a significant factor in preventing emotional problems or substance abuse.
That being said, encouraging children to find something that they feel passionate about makes sense on many levels. Pursuing activities that bring a child enjoyment and a sense of accomplishment is a boost to self-esteem. In contrast, when parents force a child to do something such as a sport or activity that the child doesn’t enjoy, it can be counterproductive and build resentment.
Myth #5: Increases in depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are explained by genetic differences and brain chemistry so family dynamics are not important.
In both groups of kids, whether growing up in poverty or in affluence, the quality of the relationships between the child and parents is highly predictive of the teen’s psychological health and well being. Kids who describe being close to their parents do better on all these dimensions, whereas kids who describe too much distance from their parents are at risk for emotional problems, lower academic achievement, and greater substance use.
Many of the factors that keep either poor or affluent kids from being at risk turn out to be the same factors that differentiate happy, loving families from alienated and disconnected families. For example, spending quality time together as a family helps safeguard teens as does open communication, and warm trusting relationships with parents. If you want to quickly assess how your family is doing, take the brief family assessment test.
One of the most important negative predictors, putting teens at greater risk, was having a parent highly critical and negative about their teenager. Learning how to deal with negative emotions, how to generate open communication, and how to work with positive forms of discipline are all crucial in helping turn the tide for our troubled youth. The greatest gift we can give our children is our time, clear structures and boundaries, and positive encouragement of their unique talents and interests.