At-risk, Privileged, and Pressured

What can be wrong across middle- to upper-middle-class communities where families with two working parents want the best for their kids in a super competitive world? Why are kids who look good, are getting good grades, play sports or musical instruments, and do community service showing up in the offices of counselors at record numbers? Even without bad divorces, substance abuse, depression, school failure, or delinquent behavior, these kids are in serious trouble.

A new book by Madeline Levine called “The price of privilege: How parental pressure and material advantage are creating a generation of disconnected and unhappy kids” describes kids who are overscheduled, lack enthusiasm, feel pressured, misunderstood, anxious, angry, and empty. In spite of these teens being articulate and intelligent, they do not seem to know themselves very well. They may be impulsive, or boring – they may be personable, but not very creative. They share several things in common though – they are very dependent on approval from others, are held to high academic standards, are given materials rewards, get little pleasure from things, and may not share much family responsibility at home.

It would be a mistake to trivialize this problem, say the parents are “too involved” and dismiss these kids as being “spoiled” – it is much more serious than that. These kids are feeling things they perceive as failures – low grades, low SAT scores, failure to make a varsity team, or a lack of friends at a profound level. Those feelings are contributing to the self-destructive behaviors associated with these unhappy and fragile privileged youth.

These are not marginalized youth – these kids have parents, coaches, teachers and counselors pouring attention and resources into them – they appear to have everything, except a sense of themselves. What may be missing is autonomy or independence – the “self” that develops by being exposed to and learning to handle complex interpersonal challenges and situations.

To become adults, teens must learn to identify their talents, skills, and interests while learning to make their own decisions and balance their lives. Parents want kids who are creative, happy, become self-starters, who can delay gratification, tolerate frustration and show self -control.

The ideal relationship with parents is one that allows for differences of opinions and is built on respect for each individual. Letting a teen make a decision must include the teen living with the consequences of that decision – mom or dad cannot clean up the outcome – dealing with that outcome helps kids make the next decision.

It is hard for parents to watch bad decisions, but we have to do it – we have to not be critical or intrusive. Instead, we need to be emotionally available to them, we can offer our opinion, but we cannot tell them what to do – to do so robs them of that “sense of self.” We also have to avoid creating children who do things to please us and never learn what is important to them.

As parents, we may need to start talking about our concerns and struggle with issues like the lines between connectedness and overinvolvement; love and intrusiveness; encouragement and obssessiveness. We may need to examine how we are modeling personal relationships, friendships, responsibility to others, and self-care. We need to be conscious, face the issues, and work it out – withdrawing never helps and good parenting is always inconvenient to the parent.

Teens need tremendous support and encouragement to become people who love who they “are” which is ultimately much more important than what they “do.”

Levine, M. (2006) The Price of privilege: How parental pressure and material advantage are creating a generation of disconnected and unhappy kids. HarperCollins Publishers, New York.

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