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Affluent Teens @ Risk for Mental Health Challenges

Affluenza Epidemic Threatens Teens

Spring will arrive soon, leaving yet another flu season in the past. But a different strain of illness threatens the well-being of well-off families: Affluenza. The “condition,” which started creeping into the national consciousness in the 1990s, stems from an emphasis on material wealth, status and achievement. Teens are especially vulnerable to its effects, which undermine self-esteem, confidence, motivation, and the ability to form meaningful relationships.

Who is at-risk? Psychologist Suniya Luthar, PhD, of Columbia University’s Teachers College, is a leading expert on the subject. Her studies have found that adolescents reared in suburban homes with an average family income of $120,000 or more report higher rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse than any other socioeconomic group in that age range across the country. Though the most recent US Census data from 2010 does not neatly break down the numbers from that specific income level, consider this: Nationally, 18.3% of families reported average income of $100,000 or more. My private practice is in Weston, Florida, whose families outpace that national average by nearly two-and-a-half times, with almost 45% landing in this top tier of earners. Conditions are ripe for an epidemic in this west Broward community in particular, and in any wealthy family in general.

A play on words combining the terms affluence + influenza, “Affluenza” is not an official mental health diagnosis. However a growing body of scientific research suggests that it is a valid concern presenting very real challenges for teens, and for those of us who parent them. Conventional wisdom for years has led us to assume that inner-city teens living at the low end of the socioeconomic spectrum are most “at-risk” for mental health challenges. Current research turns that assumption inside-out:

• The incidence of anxiety and depression among affluent teens currently is double the national average

• Offspring of high-income families are more likely to engage in behaviors such as excessive alcohol use, binge-drinking and marijuana use

• Adolescents in wealthy families are more likely to develop eating disorders

Why? Before we trot out the cliche "Blame the Mother" (and father), the truth is that material wealth is inherently a good thing. Abundance creates opportunity for more than just $250 jeans, BMWs and living in McMansions. Healthy parenting by wealthy parents teaches that money also brings enriching experiences, as well as the time and the freedom to share, to connect meaningfully with others, to give back for the greater good. Self esteem, compassion, confidence and gratitude spring naturally from that perspective. In the end, these are the qualities that bring happiness, much more than a fat bank account.

Unfortunately, society -- through traditional and social media -- bombards teens and we adults who parent them 24/7 with the notion that the end-game for teens is crushing the SATs while taking a full course-load of APs, earning straight A's, participating in athletics/clubs/ service projects and getting accepted to The Best Colleges in order to meet or exceed parents' material success. Otherwise, teens fear, they will be labeled a Failure. In that scenario, it is no wonder that some affluent teens suffer needlessly.

What's a concerned parent to do? Families can make the choice to avoid an attitude of Keeping up with the Kardashians and instead, develop the habit of simply Konnecting with the Kids. Luthar, the Columbia University psychologist, notes in her research that the most effective buffers against Affluenza are parents who are present for their children both physically and emotionally. Think "having a catch" in the backyard after work and sitting down at the family table for dinner to talk about the tribulations and triumphs of your teen's day. Remember to put the iPhone aside and really listen.

Another tip: parents and teens (individually or together) can take an inventory of their own values and decide if change is in order. Family therapy is another way to go. Individual or group therapy for teens experiencing symptoms offers a powerful antidote for the anxiety, depression, eating disorders, or issues with behavior or substance-use brought about by Affluenza.

Other resources to check out:

Do you suspect your teen might have come down with a case of affluenza? Let's talk: Call 954.494.3848 e-mail vzaffos@aol.com

Valerie Zaffos is a licensed mental health counselor at Self Empowerment Counseling in Weston, FL, working with teens and adults, individuals, couples and families. She also is a certified hypnotherapist. Free one-hour consultations are offered for prospective clients.

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