After my first session with Jenny and her parents, I sat in my office pondering… why?
Why would a sweet, shy 14-year-old try to hang herself in her bedroom closet? And why would she cut her forearms, creating scars she would cover up with long-sleeved shirts?
Sitting in a circle of chairs, Jenny’s dad had barely said anything. Jenny sat quietly looking down at her hands folded in her lap. She half-heartedly protested whenever her mom said something she disagreed with. Mom did all the talking. She described her family’s affluent lifestyle. She shared how involved they were in Jenny’s life. She made it clear that they cared deeply about her.
But I didn’t find the answers to my questions until I spoke with Jenny alone…
You see, Jenny felt like a failure – like she could do nothing right. Her mom told her how to dress, what to say to the girls in school, and who to hang out with. She criticized her for saying things that might bring ridicule from the popular kids. Mom totally controlled Jenny.
Jenny didn’t want to kill herself that night in her bedroom closet. She only yearned for tenderness and sympathy from her parents. But even her suicide attempt backfired. Her mom only scolded her for trying such a stupid thing.
It’s no wonder Jenny turned to self-destructive behavior. Inside she felt completely empty. She didn’t really know who she was because she wasn’t allowed to develop herself. She thought she was supposed to become the person her mom wanted her to be.
Here’s a shocking fact:
Adolescent suicide has quadrupled since 1950… and the biggest increase is among children who grow up in wealthy families. Studies have shown that children from affluent families are the new class of “at risk” kids.
Inordinate numbers of affluent children are suffering from increased addiction to alcohol and drugs, severe anxiety and deep depression that can lead to suicide, eating disorders, and a variety of self-destructive behaviors such as cutting… and even violent crimes.
Poverty is no longer the biggest predictor of teenage problems. Such behavior is now more prevalent in affluent teens than in kids who grow up in poor inner-city neighborhoods.
What’s the cause of these problems in affluent children?
There are two main culprits: achievement pressure from parents, and isolation (or alienation) from parents.
Most children desperately want to feel acceptance and approval from their parents… and they are willing to do almost anything to get it. Andrew is a perfect example. He was doing substandard work in his English class. He knew his father would be displeased with his grade. His grandfather had donated a huge sum of money to a prestigious university. And his father expected Andrew to attend that university.
During an important exam, Andrew decided to cheat so that he would get a passing grade. When he was caught, he first denied it. Then he burst into tears and said he did it to please his dad. He wanted to get into the school his dad had chosen for him.
This kind of achievement pressure is painful and stressful for kids. To be average is tantamount to failure. They believe that if they don’t excel at everything they try, they won’t get the approval of their parents.
Often parents don’t allow their kids to stumble and fall. They might not get into the best colleges if they have a black mark on their record. These are the parents who call the teacher to insist on a better grade. They threaten the coach with withdrawing their donation if their kid doesn’t make the team. They try to smooth things over with money or favors if their child gets into trouble.
As a result, affluent children often don’t get the chance to experience the consequences of their behaviors or learn from their mistakes. They grow up sheltered and protected from the real world. They don’t learn the self-confidence or resilience needed to be able to bounce back from failures.
“Empty” describes the way far too many affluent children feel.
Many of these kids are coddled, pressured and micromanaged so heavily that they don’t get a chance to develop independence and self-worth. They end up feeling like an empty shell, trying to be what their parents want them to be. They aren’t given the opportunity to discover what they want to do and who they want to be.
Affluent children also report emptiness because they feel isolated from their parents. Their houses are empty. Their dinner tables are empty. Their lives are empty.
Affluent parents are often busy. They work late. They travel out of town for business. They have social obligations. This means families often don’t do things together. They don’t share meals. They don’t do homework together. They rarely have time for deep communication.
Children are pawned off on nannies, babysitters and au pairs. Of course, it’s perfectly fine to have help with your children. But the responsibility of parenting a child cannot be delegated to someone else. That is the job of the mother and father.
Kids who experience isolation feel no sense of emotional closeness or warmth with their parents. They fail to develop secure attachments to them, which causes developmental problems that carry into adulthood.
Studies show that families who eat dinner together at least five times a week have kids who use significantly less tobacco, alcohol and marijuana.
Those kids also have higher grade point averages, less depressive symptoms and attempt suicide less often. Something as simple as eating together as a family can go a long way to making your children feel valued, loved and connected to you.
What Are You Doing?
My client Coleen is divorced from a very wealthy family. She became accustomed to a pampered lifestyle. Coleen’s 12-year-old daughter was mature for her age and beginning to rebel. She didn’t like her mom and didn’t obey her. Coleen had no idea why.
I asked Coleen to explain her daily routine to me. She didn’t see her daughter most mornings because she was still asleep from being out late the night before. The nanny got the child up and took her to school. The nanny picked her up from school and took her to after-school activities. Then the nanny fixed her dinner, which the young girl ate alone in the kitchen.
Sometimes, Coleen would pop in to say hello while her daughter was eating, but usually she was making phone calls and arrangements for her evening. Coleen dressed up and went out every night. She considered it her career to find another rich husband, so going out and partying every night was her job. Unbelievably, Coleen felt she was a great mother!
Coleen didn’t understand the link between the isolation her daughter felt and her daughter’s bad behavior. Children who don’t have consistent loving attention from parents feel emotionally deprived. When they don’t get the nurture they need when they’re young, they grow up with emotional problems that affect their friendships, their adult relationships and their ability to succeed in the business world.
Five Ways to Avoid “At Risk” Children
Money is not intrinsically bad. It does not ruin children. But it can create distractions. It can cause parents to prioritize the wrong things. It can cause them to lose sight of how their behavior can either enhance their children’s self-esteem and emotional well being… or cause the unnecessary pressures and alienation that lead to destructive behavior.
The good news is that raising well-balanced, self-assured children is within your power. With that in mind, I have developed five principles you can follow to help your children avoid the pitfalls of being a member of the new “at risk” youth.
1. Be there
Make sure you are a consistent presence in your children’s lives. Don’t intrude. Let your kids stumble and learn the consequences of their behaviors. Don’t strip them of the dignity of being able to make their own mistakes. Just always be there to support them. Remember, support is involvement on behalf of the child. Support feels encouraging and makes the child feel worthy and important. Intrusion is for the benefit of the parent. It feels invasive, unsupportive and suggests the child’s only value is to please his parents.
2. Accept your children for who they are
Don’t try to change your children to fit into a mold you prefer. Acknowledge their gifts and talents. Help develop them. But don’t try to push your kids into areas you wish you could explore yourself. Above all, allow your children to find their own passions and follow their own dreams – even when you don’t understand them.
3. Devote time to your kids
It’s a fact: Kids want to spend more time with their parents… even if they don’t always show it. And parents always overestimate the amount of time they spend with their kids. Make sure you do things with your children. Eat dinner together. Play games and do activities together. Do household chores together. Or just talk to each other. Spending uninterrupted time with your children lets them know that you value them.
4. Listen more than you talk
Even when you don’t know how to respond, listening is a beautiful gift to give to your kids. Parents usually want to find solutions to their kids’ problems. But sometimes listening is the solution. Your kids can fix most of their own problems. They just need to know that someone is listening… and cares.
5. Remove emptiness from your child’s life
Nurture your children. Fill them up – with your attention, your caring and your time. Even adult children need to be nurtured. They need to be listened to. They need to be cared for. Parenting never ends; your job is never over. There is every reason to make the relationships with your children fulfilling for both of you.
[Ed Note: Dr. Joanne Stern is the author of the acclaimed book, “Parenting Is a Contact Sport: 8 Ways to Stay Connected to Your Kids for Life,” and is a highly sought after international speaker who has appeared on many popular TV and radio shows. Dr. Stern is also a Family Relationships Strategic Partner with Bonner & Partners Family Office. If you would like to read more about Dr. Joanne Stern click here “]