• Affluenza: Disorder or Nonsense?

    By: Carol Maxym, PhD.

    Affluenza is defined as the unhealthy psychological and social effects of affluence. This condition is typically characterized by feelings of guilt, lack of motivation, and social isolationism. In its most extreme form, materialism and hyper-consumption associated with wealth and success can result in chronic unhappiness, debt, overwork, stress, and poor relationships.

    Affluenza isn’t something new. I’ve seen it over and over again- in life, history, and literature. One of the first examples that I can think of is Tom Bertram in Jane Austin’s early 19th Century novel, Mansfield Park. Tom has put his family finances into a sorry state due to his unchecked extravagance.  However, far from accepting that he didn’t know better (which apparently he did not!), his father, Sir Thomas speaks sharply to him and reminds him how his behavior and attitude has impacted the family, most especially his brother.  And Tom’s reaction is that his father is being unfair to him.  Another example is Steerforth in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.  And, of course, the list could go on and on.

    So, I’m guessing that it isn’t Affluenza that catapulted this Texas case to the national news; no, it’s that the condition was used as one of the reasons as to why prison would not be suitable. It’s shocking to think that because someone is so pampered and wealthy that it absolves him from the law. To give you a little more background, Ethan Couch, was 16 when he was tried as a juvenile for a drunk-driving case that resulted in the death of four people. His psychiatrist testified that Ethan had “affluenza” and that his family’s wealth and upbringing had caused him to be so spoiled that it impaired his judgement to tell right from wrong. The affluenza diagnosis, not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, was widely ridiculed.

    Terrifying but true:   I have little problem believing that the young man for whom this defense was used really doesn’t understand that his actions and attitudes have effects beyond himself.  I have worked with scores and scores of such kids over the years, but never to this extent.

    Here’s what bothers me (I mean besides the rampant injustice to his victims):  No one seemed to be terribly upset that he doesn’t know how his actions affect others.  Honestly, those who accepted the defense seem to me to be complicit in re-creating the problem (and I’ll go out on a limb to wonder why this could be thought up as a defense unless someone’s own children might not be similar…just a speculation…).

    In a culture that enshrines narcissism, I think we must accept that kids are likely to miss out on the lesson about how one’s actions and attitudes may effect or affect others.

    Just a few more thoughts (and this is another topic we’ll be revisiting because it is so much a part of the smiley face-amazing-awesome-rewarding culture that is so damaging to kids):

    1. Have you paid attention to the ads that show you as the adult being stupid? How about the one that says, “So easy even an adult can do it!”  Or the one where the child needs to tell her father to put her in a booster seat in the car?
    2. If adults allow for a defense such as Affluenza, how can they expect their child to grow up into an honorable, productive individual? Fortunately, I think most parents are as appalled as I am.
    3. If parents insist on gratifying a child’s every wish and whim, how can the parent expect the child to learn about the world beyond himself?

    As parents, it’s our duty to raise mindful children, who aren’t only wrapped up in their own wants and needs. It’s important that we teach our children to be conscious, know right from wrong, learn from their mistakes, accept accountability, and take responsibility for their actions.


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