Researchers have been focusing on the tragedy of teenage suicide clusters specifically in Northern California. One of the confusing variables in these clusters is that the students are originating from families of affluence and high academic backgrounds. Many kids in these communities comment on the pressure they feel to be “successful”. Not long ago affluent children were considered to be a low risk group compared to children in lower socioeconomic communities. Suniya Luthar, Ph.D. conducted research that suggests that children of affluence experience more substance abuse, anxiety and depression than comparison groups of children with lower incomes. Researchers are reporting evidence in affluent adolescents of guilt, depression or anxiety that comes with “having everything.” Two sets of potential causes have come forward in the discussion: pressure to achieve and isolation from parents.
Parenting labels have been circulating around the media and it is now common to hear phrases like “helicopter parents”, “tiger moms”, and “bulldozer parents”. Most recently there have been examples of parents bribing colleges and committing other crimes to help secure their child’s placement into top colleges and universities. Adolescents in this group describe their experience as an “unrelenting” pressure from feeling not only high expectations from a range of adults in their lives (parents, teachers, coaches, etc.) but also as a self-induced burden. There is constant comparing of grades, GPA’s and course level selection with peers.
As parents work long hours to provide the financial resources to fund opportunities for their families and to model work ethic, they often spend time away from their children. Some research has reported junior high students being left home alone for several hours per day. There is a commonly held belief that isolation can promote self-sufficiency. However, this level of isolation can mean the family is not spending time together perhaps due to parent’s career demands or excessive after school activities. Isolation is considered both literal and emotional. There is the absence of a caregiver, but also a diminishing degree of emotional closeness to a caregiver.
In addition to the clinically significant rates of anxiety and depression found in children and adolescents with affluence, there are also significantly higher levels of substance abuse reported such as drinking to intoxication, e-cigarettes, JUUL, marijuana and other illicit drugs. Some studies suggest using drugs is an effort to self-medicate. Studies also show that these adolescents are using substances in order to manage or reduce their stress. Other studies show there is a pressure to use drugs to try to fit in or be popular.
There is a need to address the pressured academic climate and the emotional struggles that affluent children face today. There is an increase in stress related physical complaints such as headaches, stomachaches, insomnia and exaggerated health problems. Another interesting factor is that many of these adolescents do not feel like they have the right to be sad or scared. They are feeling extreme gulit when they learn through the media about people with limited or no resources. We believe there is a tremendous burden that is felt by affluent children to do “something special”. They are constantly told, “You can be anything you want to be,” which adds even more pressure not to waste their opportunity or squander the resources and sacrifices their families have made for them.
At Pacific Quest, we collaboratively come together to support families who are feeling the stress and pressure of their children’s challenges. We delve deeply to understand the complex factors, address them and work on sustainable change. We work to get out of the cycle of over-scheduling and focus on family time, connection and communication. There needs to be a collective shift into balance, personal health and wellbeing.
Brian Konik, Ph.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Kristen McFee, MA, LPCC, LMHC, LPC