Sick of Expectations

(Illustration By Stuart Bradford For The Washington Post)
By Sandra G. Boodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Adolescent alienation isn't a new phenomenon. But the unhappy teenagers clinical psychologist Madeline Levine sees in her practice aren't merely going through a developmental phase, she writes.

In her new book, "The Price of Privilege" (Harper Collins, $24.95), Levine says that over-involved parents who pressure their children to be stars -- in school, on athletic fields, among their peers -- have created a generation that is "extremely unhappy, disconnected and passive." Unabashedly materialistic and disinterested in the wider world, they are both bored and "often boring," she writes. A large number suffer from depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

Levine, 57, the mother of three sons, draws heavily on her 25 years of clinical experience in Marin County, Calif. Those insights are augmented by interviews with psychiatrists and psychologists around the country, as well as an emerging body of research about the psychological health of children raised in families whose average annual incomes range from $120,000 to $160,000.

Affluent teens, she writes, are among those least likely to receive treatment for emotional problems, because many of their parents are loath to mar the public image of the perfect family.

One recent study found that upper-middle-class girls appear three times more likely to suffer from clinical depression than those from other socioeconomic groups. Following are excerpts from a recent Q-and-A with the author.

What is the "culture of affluence," and why is it damaging to kids?

I think there's been a real ratcheting up of materialism, as opposed to an emphasis on making connections with people. Competition counts more than cooperation. If you can't trust your neighbor, or your best friend sitting next to you while you take the SATs because she might score 10 points higher than you and knock you out of your chance of going to the school you want, that makes people feel they have nowhere to turn except to themselves.

I think it's made worse by this persistent and unreasonable fear that we are all in competition for very limited resources. The reality is that there really is a space for everybody who wants to go to college, even though it may not be at Harvard.

Affluent communities aren't new, nor is academic competition or drug abuse. In the late 1960s and early 1970s competition for college was fierce, drug use was common and, for boys, there was the added fear of being drafted to fight in Vietnam. Why would life be harder for teenagers now?

We don't really know the answer to that; there never was any research done on affluent kids 20 or 30 years ago. This may be a phenomenon that's been going on for decades, but nobody did studies of these kids.

I do think the parental over-involvement and level of anxiety are new. A friend showed me the Yale alumni bulletin and said they used to write about who was appointed to the Cabinet or started a company or became head of a hospital. Now, it's whose kid made the select soccer team.

There really is some transformative idea about the role of children's accomplishments. And I lay part of the blame for that at the feet of my own profession, which came up with the ridiculous notion that a kid's self-esteem was so fragile and so vulnerable that all efforts needed to be made to increase it.

I'll give you an example: Where I live they have something called the "good-enough catch." If a little kid is playing baseball and is anywhere near the base and makes the catch, it counts as an out. Aside from the absurdity of it, it's actually horrible preparation for real life. The world simply doesn't work that way.

Are the increases in depression, anxiety disorders and substance abuse real, or do they reflect the fact that affluent kids are more likely to be diagnosed and medicated than their less privileged peers?

My best guess is that this is a real increase caused in part by the phenomenal microanalysis of everything these children do.

What affluent parents tend to do is to see the child they wish they had -- not the child they have. Parents have this notion that their child is supposed to be a certain way, because performance is so highly valued in affluent communities. Parental love has become contingent on performance, which is very damaging.

I just had parents who came into my office with their crying daughter and said, "We just wasted $160,000." Why did they think that? Because they sent their kid to a private school and she wants to go to the University of Colorado instead of, say, Georgetown.

Kids aren't having the experiences that are mandatory for healthy child development -- and that's a period of time to be left alone, to figure out who you are, to experiment with different things, to fail, and to develop a repertoire of responses to challenge. They have no interior life. It's all about performance -- and performance is not real learning.

Why are many parents pathologically over-involved?

I do think there is a cultural shift. We have smaller families, we have more time to obsess about perfecting each child. Many parents can't stand to see their children unhappy or angry or disappointed, which is part of life, part of growing up.

Our generation of parents is not happy themselves. A lot of women feel that their best emotional bet is their children. The divorce rate is high, friendships are hard to come by, communities are competitive.

I'm not romanticizing the 1950s, but in those days, women had coffee klatches. I came from a working-class neighborhood, and every door was open and people felt responsible for other people's children. Now, people wouldn't think of going next door for a cup of coffee or to discuss a personal problem. You have to make a date first. There's nothing like that fluid interchange of support and help that our mothers had.

You identify three types of parents: involved, over-involved and intrusive. How do they differ?

Say the kid comes home and says he has a math test. The involved parent says, "We want you to do well on that test, so you need to study between 7 and 8 after dinner for an hour."

The over-involved mother, of which I'm one, might say the same thing plus, "Before you go to sleep, I'd like to go over those math problems with you."

The intrusive parent does all that and then finds a mistake and says, "I knew it. You can never be left alone. You were going to go into the test unprepared just the way you always do and you're going to fail and then you're going to be flipping burgers for the rest of your life." They get into the child's psychological space, they make judgments about the value of that child. And that's a very dangerous place for a parent to be.

What advice do you have for parents?

There are several thing parents can do: Families should eat dinner together as much as possible, and kids should be involved in rituals -- at church, the synagogue, at Meals on Wheels or wherever.

Parents need to impose consistent discipline, which will help kids develop self-control, which is vital.

Kids should never, ever , be paid for grades. Real learning is about effort and improvement, not performance. Your kid's C actually may be the far greater achievement than the A that comes easily.

And they should have chores. A lot of kids I see don't have to do anything except shine. And if you turn out kids who aren't expected to do anything but shine, you turn out narcissistic or self-centered kids. As one girl I see told me, "If I'm so special, why do I have to clear the table?" ยท

Join psychologist Madeline Levine for a Live Online chat about materialism and teen mental health Tuesday at noon.

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