Does Your Child Have “Affluenza?” Uh Oh.

Although this post was originally published four years ago, it bears another look. Why? Because recently, a 16 year old whose blood alcohol was almost three times over the legal limit, stole his dad’s car and plowed into four people, killing them all. His attorney pleaded that he should not be held accountable for their deaths. And the judge agreed. Why? Because the young man suffers from affluenza. Yep, that happened.

What on earth is affluenza? Is it contagious? Is it serious? Well according to PBS, which produced an hour-long television show about it, affluenza can be defined as: “1. The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses. 2. An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream.”

Basically, it’s an addiction to materialism — the overwhelming desire for more, more, more.

But what does that have to do with my kid, you might ask? He’s only three-years-old and more concerned with pursuing the household dog than dogmatically pursuing anything else. Career ambitions? Short-term, we’re shooting for total success in the potty training field and long-term, we’re possibly looking at something involving fire engines.

I know, but it actually does have a lot to do with your kid, and every kid, for that matter. It doesn’t just affect adults. Kids are suffering from it, too — in a big way — and yes, it is serious and highly contagious.

Just pair the affluenza idea with a recent study from San Diego State University and you’ll understand what I mean. Incredibly, they found that the number of teens suffering from anxiety and depression today is five times higher than it was during the Great Depression. Did you get that? And according to an article from Connect With Kids, the experts are pointing to affluenza as a major reason why.

That statistic took my breath away and it should get your attention too, because the trends that appear in the teen set today usually stick around for awhile and then eventually hit the pre-school set a few years later. The patterns and expectations you set up with your children now, while they are little, will last for a long time.

When we launched  this website, we promised to warn you about the inevitable potholes that appear when you least expect them, and hopefully save you some trouble. I know you’ve got a lot on your plate, with little ones running around but as a mom and a family therapist, I’m urging you to pay attention, because this is a big one.

So here’s the low-down on this prevalent and frightening virus: what it looks like like, how it gets passed around, and how you can prevent your child from becoming its next victim.

SYMPTOMS:

Many of the kids who were questioned in the study  (regardless of family income), said they needed the latest ipod, iphone, sports car, designer handbag, or $200.00 pair of jeans in order to feel comfortable and “good enough”  about themselves. Several reported buying something they wanted and then lying about its cost to a parent.

They knew they had crossed an important line regarding trust. But with affluenza, one’s sense of self worth gets linked to their possessions. What they own becomes the mark of who they are. Their accomplishments, ideals, families, talents or dreams for the future are not nearly as important as their “things” in determining how they see themselves.

The symptoms present as an obsession with shopping, or constantly comparing what they have with what their friends have. It’s a disease marked by competitiveness and their perception of “personal lack” can result in feelings of shame, anxiety, depression or unworthiness.

This is not, counter to what you might think, an exclusively upper-class disease. Kids from all racial and socioeconomic groups are affected.

CONTAGABILITY:

This one gets passed around very easily and often gets its start at home. Parents beware! Take a step back and look at how you spend money and family resources. Do your purchases tend to be needs or wants? We all like to indulge ourselves once-in-awhile, but a picture is worth a thousand words and guess which one they’re looking at?

They are certainly going to pick up on the behaviors and norms of their buddies in the neighborhood and at school. But that makes it even more important to make sure that at home, you practice what you preach.

TREATMENT:

Affluenza can be successfully treated. The first step is to spot it and call it for what it is. The rest is based on good, old fashioned follow-through. So here’s the plan:

1. Slow down on all the presents. Save them for birthdays and Christmas or Hanukkah. And even then, keep it modest. In a previous article, I mentioned that a large research study had found that 73% (yes, 3 out of 4) of the stuff parents bought their kids were things that the children hadn’t even asked for. The parents bought the stuff simply because they thought their kid might like it. Don’t go there. It can create an addiction and the story of the overindulged child does not end well. The kids in that study grew up deeply resenting their parents, and vowed not to spoil their own children when they became parents.

2. Set limits. If your child does want something, help him figure out how to either wait for it (“Put it on your Christmas list”); save up for it (remember the lay-away plan?); work for it; or forget about it. Remind him that just because he wants something doesn’t mean he gets to have it. And then, stick to your guns.

3. Hold off on giving them their own credit card until they are mature enough to handle it. Many of the kids in the San Diego study had them and spent over their limit on a regular basis. Unless you plan to fund them for the rest of their lives, you had best avoid that trap. That’s not to say they can’t have a credit card when they go to college for books, emergencies etc., but make sure you check it carefully each month and hold them accountable for any unauthorized purchases. And if they abuse it, cancel it.

4. Get them involved in giving back in one way or another. Volunteering in their community or school is a good way to start. This can start very young, with you!

PREVENTION:

There is no vaccine but there is hope. You are their best shot at prevention. And you can make all the difference. How?

1. Family dinnertime. Once again, it comes up as an antidote. Start right away with this habit and keep it going. Make it a priority to eat together at least 4 or 5 times per week. The research is crystal clear in demonstrating the positive effect on behavior, self-esteem, and overall happiness in children.

2. Spend time with your child playing, talking, and goofing around. Institute Family Game Night and “Special Time” and keep it going. The more quality time they spend with you away from the television and computer, the more confident they will feel about themselves.

3. Encourage them to develop their imaginations and become good at something creative that they enjoy. Something, not a hundred things. Maybe it’s music, or art, or fishing, or rock polishing. Just make sure it’s truly something that they like and don’t go overboard with lessons or teachers. Just give them encouragement and opportunity, and help them to develop their hobby or talent over time.

4. Make a pact with your friends to tone down the birthday parties and limit the excess when it comes to bigger and better. Work with your nursery school or P.T.A. to keep it simple when it comes to holiday parties or celebrations at school. And ask any well-meaning but notoriously overindulging grandparents, aunts, uncles or friends not to go overboard on a regular basis.

You can do this. I hope you’ll try. If you need a little more inspiration, keep in mind the wise words of Frank A. Clark: “A child, like your stomach, doesn’t need all you can afford to give it.” Now that’s something to chew on.


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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.


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2 responses to “Does Your Child Have “Affluenza?” Uh Oh.”

  1. Don

    Thanks for this article. I think it hits the nail on the head with what is happening to our society. We see it in our own family.

  2. Hazel M. Wheeler

    Thanks for re-running this article; it popped in my head the moment I heard about the ruling.

    It’s sad that the judge chose to allow this sort of tragedy to go unpunished; it sets a frightening precedent that rich kids can do what they want with no consequence. The parents will not learn anything by this, other than the more money you have, the more one can be ‘above the law’… just because they think they are. A sad day for all Americans, but most especially for the families of the true victims.

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