We have often been told about the risks that inner city kids face and that their challenges outweigh their more wealthy counterparts in suburban America. Yet current research shows that more affluent and privileged children are increasingly at risk for depression, substance abuse, and suicidal behavior than their peers living in inner cities.
According to Suniya Luthar and Bronwyn Becker at Columbia University, “research over the last 30 years indicates that Americans are twice as rich now but no happier than they used to be. Divorce rates have doubled, the suicide rate among teens has tripled and depression rates have soared.”
Children of affluent families feel more pressure to succeed and as a result experience more negative consequences. Teens who are given everything that they need or want often feel no sense of purpose, do not feel needed, have little contact with adults (since usually both parents are working), and do not pursue anything beyond their own personal pleasure. Privileged children rate their happiness level lower than children in poor urban areas, whom people would typically consider most likely to be unhappy.
Besides all of the usual pressures teens face privileged children feel the added pressure of doing well in school, attending a good college, and upholding the family name. According to Luthar and Becker, a privileged 11 year-old boy can be criticized more by peers for not using alcohol than a 16 year-old in a poorer neighborhood.
During the summer many teens are left unsupervised during the day. Research by the State of Oregon would suggest “that at least 60% of children who are 16 to 18 years old will use alcohol and other drugs during the summer; many on a weekly basis.” They are turning to drugs and alcohol to combat boredom and relieve stress pressures. Children at greatest risk are those who have a lot of unsupervised time, don’t want or have a job but have money to spend, and associate with others who are involved in drugs and alcohol.
Helping a child feel responsible, fulfilled, and needed are the best ways to combat the risks facing privileged children. Instead of always focusing on what is wrong with behavior parents need to focus on “what’s right with children.” Dr. Seligman has demonstrated “that children benefit from parents who help their children express and recognize their strengths and what they are doing to fulfill their potential.” Provide activities that build and reinforce positive character development and teach responsibility. This can be done through challenges issued by parents or initiated by the teen, jobs, outdoor activities, service to others, and team sports.