Teens: Suburban Blues

Money does not equal happiness, especially for the young.
Teens: Suburban Blues

Money does not equal happiness, especially for the young.
Affluent kids suffer higher rates of depression, but time with
family can help.

By: Hara Estroff Marano

A report from the suburbs has some surprising news about children
growing up in the culture of affluence. It’s a longitudinal study
and the interesting finding is that the kids have a multitude of
adjustment problems. The surprise is that they often have more
problems than age-matched kids growing up in the inner city—and
their problems persist despite the mental health services
presumably available to them.

Beyond a certain point, the researchers found, the pursuit of
status and material wealth by high-earning families (say,
0,000 and above) tends to leave skid marks on the kids, but in
ways you might not have expected. Affluent suburban high
schoolers not only smoke more, drink more, and use more hard
drugs than typical high schoolers do—they do so more than a
comparison group of inner-city kids. In addition, they have much
higher rates of anxiety and, in general, higher rates of

Among affluent suburban girls, rates of depression skyrocket—they
are three times more likely than average teen girls to report
clinically significant levels of depression. And for all
problems, the troubles seem to start in the seventh grade. Before
then, the affluent kids do well.

Interestingly, among the upper-middle-class suburban kids, but
not among the inner-city kids, use of alcohol and drugs is linked
with depression and anxiety. That raises the possibility that
substance use is an attempt to self-medicate.

What’s more, this so-called negative-affect type of substance use
tends to endure; it doesn’t disappear after the teen years. The
researchers also found that among the suburban boys, popularity
with peers went hand in hand with substance use.

What’s it all about? In part, the affluent kids are responding to
achievement pressures. Rates of depression, anxiety, and
substance use were high among those whose families overemphasized
their accomplishments and who saw achievement failures as
personal failures.

Isolation—emotional as well as literal—from adults also played a
big role. Where the demands of the parents’ own professional
careers eroded relaxed family time, and the kids shuttled between
various after-school activities, distress and substance use among
the young were high.

Accessibility counts. “A common assumption is that parents are
more accessible to high- than to low-income youth, but our data
showed otherwise,” the researchers reported. Wealthier kids
didn’t feel closer to parents or spend more time with them at the
dinner table, for example.

Eating dinner with at least one parent on most nights turned out
to be a big deal. It predicted both adjustment and school
performance—at both economic extremes.

Why do affluent kids have so many problems if their families can
easily afford to get professional help for them? Maybe, the
investigators suggested on the basis of other research, the
parents aren’t eager to delve into problems that are not
conspicuous—unless symptoms include those that inconvenience
adults, such as disobedience.

Privacy concerns and embarrassment may also keep parents from
attending to invisible problems. They may need to maintain a
veneer of well-being. Then there are all the inconveniences of
daily life that impede them—the demands of their very
high-powered careers that provide so well for their families.
“Few families would blithely repudiate such rewards,” the
researchers concede.

Here’s the kicker: Even if the kids of the affluent got all the
mental health care they need, something irreplaceably protective
would still be missing from their lives: strong attachments with
parents. Research shows that you can’t relieve “crystallized m
aladjustment” as long as kids’ everyday lives still present major

So what’s to be done? First and foremost, say the researchers, be
aware of the costs of overscheduled and competitive lifestyles.
Second, understand the risks affluence poses to healthy
adjustment of children. And a third measure seems self-evident:
Make dinner a command performance for all family members.

Source: Psychology Today, 22 March 2005
Copyright Sussex Publishers, LLC. 2006.

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