They are the teenagers who would seem to be the envy of every other kid at middle schools and high schools across America — rich, showered with material wealth — and by corollary, it would appear, accomplished, popular, and most of all, happy.
Not so, says northern California psychologist Madeline Levine, author of “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Deeply Unhappy Kids,” a book that is flying off bookstore shelves in affluent communities nationwide, and is in its 14th printing in as many months.
“Of course, I am surprised and pleased at how well my book is doing, but at the same time, its popularity is pointing to a disturbing trend,” says Levine. “Parents are starting to get scared. We’ve reached the tipping point. If it’s not your own kid who is feeling empty, lost, disconnected, unhappy, or unfilled in some way, it’s your sister’s kid, your best friend’s, your neighbor’s.”
Levine, a practicing psychologist for more than 25 years, specializes in working with teens who are privileged financially, are typically bright, and skilled socially. Most are well-loved by their affluent parents, who are involved in their lives materially and in superficial ways, but not in ways that are deep, meaningful, or have positive emotional impact. Levine, who is on a national book tour, will be stopping in West Windsor on Sunday, November 4, to give a lecture to parents and teens at Beth Chaim Synagogue under the auspices of the Jewish Family Services organization on Alexander Road. This non-sectarian lecture is open to the public and is geared towards parents and teens regardless of religious persuasion, as well as parents of younger children who are looking ahead and are concerned about this issue. Optional breakout sessions for teens will take place following the lecture, and these sessions are geared towards the impact of this topic on teens who are Jewish.
Levine has put her finger on a national problem: America’s affluent families, with their emphasis on performance, perfectionism, competition, and materialism, are creating a large population of accomplished but emotionally troubled adolescents. These are not teens who “look” troubled, or wear their problems on their sleeves, with a demeanor or attitude that literally cries out for help. What’s especially troubling is that for the most part the troubled teens Levine is talking about have the traditional trappings of success: they are doing well in school and in sports, they have active social lives. And aside from moodiness or the vague unhappiness that is typical in adolescence, outwardly they appear normal.
But consider these disturbing facts:
1. Researchers estimate that 30 to 40 percent of teens from affluent homes are experiencing significant emotional problems, three times the national rate. As many as 22 percent of adolescent girls from affluent homes suffer from clinical depression, also three times the national rate.
2. Depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and psychosomatic disorders are higher among affluent teens than among any other socioeconomic group.
3. By the end of high school, as many as one third of girls from these families exhibit an anxiety disorder.
4. Adolescent boys from affluent homes also have elevated rates of depression and anxiety but their most significant problem seems to be elevated rates of substance abuse.
5. Affluent kids feel less close to their parents than any other group of teens.
“Why are the most advantaged kids in this country running into unprecedented levels of mental illness and emotional distress?” is the first of Levine’s key questions. “Is there something about such factors as privilege, high levels of parental income, education, involvement, and expectations that can combine to have a toxic rather than the expected protective effect on children? Why are children of privilege, in record numbers, having such a difficult time completing the most fundamentally important task of adolescence — the development of autonomy and a healthy sense of self?”
Levine says that people in affluent communities tend to have high levels of depression, anxiety disorders, and even alcohol and substance abuse because of pressure, and it is the same kind of pressure they are passing on to their children. “There is tremendous pressure not to be just good but great, and not just great at something, but great at everything. It’s an unrealistic and unsustainable amount of pressure for most children.”
She says that one of the ways parents can help their teens is to redefine their notion of success, a lesson she learned by raising her own three sons with her husband, Lee Schwartz, an ophthalmologist and surgeon who practices in San Francisco. Their oldest son, Loren, now 27, was the child teachers used to call the perfect suburban boy, a straight A student and varsity athlete in multiple sports. “The system worked reasonably well for him,” Levine says, “because he was verbal and driven.” He went to UCLA and is now a lawyer. Michael, 23, went to the University of Southern California, earned a degree in film and theater, and is now seeking fame and fortune in New York. “He’s a divergent thinker, very creative, but life was not as easy for him.”
It was with their youngest, Jeremy, now 16, that she and her husband really had to open up their thinking about traditional success and how it is defined. “School has just been awful for him,” says Levine. “He’s extremely non-verbal and has a learning difference. It wasn’t until he hit high school with a track in engineering and architecture where he blossomed. He’s great with his hands, and he’s a great visual and spatial learner, part of a huge group of kids who are skilled in a different kind of arena than the typical classroom, but it’s easy for them to become discouraged if they think they are missing the mark.”
Levine was born and raised in Queens and graduated from Bayside High School. Her mother was a housewife and social worker. Her father was 47 when he died. She was 18, her younger brother was 15, and the family had to go on assistance. “It was a defining experience,” she says. “The only way I got to college was on my verbal skills. I won a scholarship.” She graduated from the University of Buffalo in 1970 with a BA in English, and then went to Columbia University for a year in social work. She returned to the University of Buffalo for a masters in education, and then taught for four years in the South Bronx, seeing both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum as she taught at the elementary, junior high, and high school levels. She earned a Ph.D. from the California School of Professional Psychology in San Francisco and Berkeley.
How does she counsel well-intentioned but confused parents who don’t know what to do with their troubled teen? Levine says start by seeing the child in front of you. “Everybody starts out with a fantasy child. But once you have a child, it’s pretty much guaranteed that child will not fulfill your fantasy. Acknowledge your child’s strengths, help them with their weaknesses, and make that child feel loved for who they are. When parents are constantly celebrating their achievements and then withdrawing their affection based on performance, it makes the child feel unlovable. An example is saying ‘You got an A, I am so proud of you,’ and then saying ‘You got a B, do you want to flip burgers for the rest of your life?’”
She offers more tips:
Stop using praise and material goods to manipulate kids. “Saying I’ll give you 10 dollars for every A on your report card is a terrible idea. It solidifies this massaging of an external motivation instead of motivation that comes from within. Learning, whether it’s academic or about living in the world, has to come from inside the person. At the heart of strength, we have to have the strength coming from ourselves.
Give children chores. A child’s first community is the home. Kids need to feel they have value, a role, a place, and chores help them do that. Mom should not clear the table and do the dishes so the child can do homework. You are not excused from doing work in the real world so don’t make excuses for them at home. Helping at home gives children their first model of responsibility to the group.
Have kids participate in family rituals in meaningful ways. Try to eat at least five meals a week together as a family. The statement says that every day, there is a time and a place for the family to come together. It doesn’t mean there has to be fireworks at every meal. It’s a message that the family cares about each other.
Remember that there are two sides of the coin to parenting. One side is that warmth, especially maternal warmth, which is one of the greatest factors in a child’s mental health. The flip side is discipline, and we have a harder time with it, because we are tired and we are stressed. But proper discipline is critical to maintaining that parenting balance.
Make sure kids have some time every day that is unstructured. Play is necessary for healthy development. It’s the way children learn how to navigate the world, and learn about rules and pecking orders. If every day is structured with activities managed by adults, they don’t learn social rules.
Transmitting values is one of the most important parenting jobs we have. Instead of talking about your next purchase, consider sharing with your children your enthusiasm for activities that make you feel productive and engaged — your work, your book group, a volunteer or a community education class you’re considering.
Talk about how to make moral choices, whether at home or out in the world. Help your child understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy competition.
Levine says parents have to create a paradigm based on who their children are rather than how their children perform. “People in these affluent communities like to look good — their houses look good, their lawns look good, and they want their kids to look good. What they have to remember is that raising strong teenagers is not about appearance but helping them build a strong sense of self. Part of that is allowing adolescents to fumble with difficult tasks and learn from their mistakes. This is how they master the art of making independent healthy and moral decisions that can be called upon in the absence of directives from their parents.”
“The Price of Privilege,” Sunday, November 4, 4 p.m. Congregation Beth Chaim, West Windsor. Madeline Levine, author of “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Deeply Unhappy Kids,” gives a non-sectarian talk to teens and parents. She works with teens who are privileged financially but report that they feel empty, lost, disconnected, unhappy, and unfulfilled. Free and open to the community. Sponsored by Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County, 707 Alexander Road. 609-987-8100.