Young, Rich and Bored: Why Are The Have It All Teens Worse Off Than Ever Before?

When you think of the typical 'problem teen', what do you picture? Chances are that you're envisioning a kid, a little scruffy around the edges, maybe from a broken home, probably from a background of poverty. Historically, this picture has been mostly accurate. There is a variety of known success impeding factors that affect families who don't have enough money, who are often undereducated and underemployed, and are often in single-parent households. Children under 5 who come from a poverty-stricken background are particularly susceptible to negative outcomes.

There's no reason to overturn that notion. Kids in that situation are facing an uphill battle. But is it possible that by taking a black and white look at the situation facing many teens and their families, that we may be discounting the reality being faced by another group of teens? A group that many psychologists and family health industry observers had traditionally assumed to be much better off when it comes to certain problems?

There's an assumption that children who come from more privileged backgrounds -- parents with better education, high-income jobs, an intact household -- will see the privileges of their background extend to all areas of life. However, recent studies indicate that there may actually be higher levels of substance abuse among rich teens. Rates of binge drinking, marijuana use, and other substance use may exceed their comparatively underprivileged peers.

The trend is not limited to drugs and alcohol. Crime is another area where most individuals have a fairly rigid, stereotypical view of what teen criminals probably look like. However, that stereotype just doesn't square with the reality of the situation we're seeing in the world today. Commission of crimes is roughly equal among the two teen groups, and this fact is especially clear in self-reported data (which is sometimes more representative of the facts due to disparities in the prosecution of crimes and the types of crimes being committed). There is a disparity along income lines of the types of crimes being committed, but those reveal a surprising bias as well. Teenagers from wealthy families were far more likely to be dishonest, such as cheating or stealing, especially from their parents, while crimes committed by kids from poor backgrounds often featured some element of self-defense.

Ultimately, the point of this article is not to comment on socioeconomic injustices -- we will deign to leave such matters to people with far more knowledge than ourselves -- but instead, to expose some surprising truths about the reality of what's going on with kids today. People commonly assume one thing, and it turns out that thing is by and large not true. That leads to situations where teens who may need professional help, in the form of therapy or other interventions, may not be getting the attention they need.

Just as troubling is the co-occurring rise of mental health issues among kids from well to do families. Some studies indicate that rates of depression may be twice as high as the national average. Private schools are filled with students who report high levels of depression and anxiety.
So what gives? Is this sudden change the result of some elaborate new way that we have of measuring these kinds of things? Nope. That's not it. Unfortunately, it's much more complicated than that. So what's changed? Why is it that the youth of today with access to the greatest potential for success are faltering under the weight of so much stress?

The pressure to achieve high-flying success has never been greater. Meeting the expectations that teens feel have been placed upon them is an incredibly difficult task, especially as achieving success becomes increasingly abstract and difficult as the economy and the global marketplace change, not to mention shifting societal and personal definitions of success. Kids often have sky-high expectations of themselves, and their parents often place even higher expectations upon them.

Participating in a growing number of cultivated hobbies, volunteer opportunities, and extracurricular activities is seen as a requirement to be piled on top of an already backbreaking scholastic workload. To be competitive, one has to truly distinguish themselves. In an environment of accelerating accomplishments, when students are regularly pushing themselves to the limit by depriving themselves of sleep and treating other basic human needs as rewards that they don't deserve, it's no wonder that these kids are being pushed to the breaking point.

It used to be that in order to become successful, all you really had to do was land an alright job and work full time at your career until you advanced to a position of seniority. It was a given that you'd be able to afford to buy a home and to provide for your family. Not only are those days gone, but the standards by which we measure success have changed irrevocably. And in most cases, merely going to college is not enough to land the best jobs unless you're lucky enough to have professional connections (although, increasingly, those connections are becoming a requirement for achievement as well).

Like a high-pressure release valve, today's kids blow off steam. They do it by acting out. They do it by getting wasted at weekend ragers. They do it by hooking up with each other without thinking about the consequences. They do it just to feel alive. Committing a crime, for these kids, is like throwing a tantrum. It's an expression of autonomy, of anger, of defiance of the burden they feel has been placed upon them. It is an act of nihilistic regression.

All kids today face an enormous amount of pressure. So much that it can be difficult for parents to understand or relate. For families that are already well off, the bar is raised to near impossible heights. By around 13 years of age, kids begin to feel this pressure, and rich kids typically have more money and access to alcohol and other substances.

So What Can Be Done About This Clash Of Values and Circumstances Among Today's Most Privileged Teens?

The single most important thing we can do is to raise our kids not to compare themselves with others. This is easier said than done. It's a natural human reaction to want to measure your own achievements against the accomplishments of others. We feel the rewarding rush of serotonin every time we perceive ourselves to be the winners in an infinite array of tiny competitions that we play out every day. It's a matter of programming. Showing kids that they must compare their own performance only against their own past achievements and inner knowledge of what they are capable of achieving is really about a realignment of values.

As a society, we have developed a toxic definition of success. It is so predicated upon material wealth that we have to completely redefine how our society looks at success if we want to give all kids an equal chance to feel that they have succeeded -- ultimately identifying oneself as a 'successful' person overall is one of the biggest indicators of lifelong happiness. It's worth considering how we can refocus on what really matters to measure success going forward.

It may seem unfair and unnecessary to put so much special attention toward the happiness and success of rich kids, who many people rightly perceive as spoiled and entitled, but we must remember: these are kids we're talking about, after all.

Additionally, the children of wealthy and upwardly mobile families are much more likely to inherit positions of power, both public and private. It's a simple matter of access to opportunities. That means that we need to ensure that these future leaders are equipped with all of the tools necessary to meet the challenges they will have to help us overcome as a society.

It all starts with internalizing positive values.

Wingate Wilderness Therapy is a program for teens and young adults whose choices have put obstacles between themselves and success. To learn how an adventurous program of outdoor experiential therapy can help put your son or daughter back on the path to achievement, call 1-800-560-1599.

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WinGate Therapy
WinGate Therapy

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