The Privilege Paradox in Today’s Young Adults

August 11, 2015

Written by

Claudia Black Young Adult Center



By Claudia Black, Ph.D.

At the Claudia Black Young Adult Center, we work with young adults from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. But, many of our clients grew up with the privileges that come with being from upper-middle income and high income families.

Despite their advantages, children of affluence are experiencing disproportionately high levels of emotional problems today. These young adults experience the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints and unhappiness of any group of children in the country. This is not meant to minimize the problems that children from other economic backgrounds face; but, we cannot ignore, dismiss, or downplay what is happening to a very sizable portion of our young adult population.

Depression, Anxiety and Drugs

Studies from public schools show that as many as 22 percent of adolescent girls from financially comfortable families suffer from clinical depression. That’s three times the national rate for adolescent girls. By the end of high school, one third of the girls from these families exhibit clinical signs of anxiety. Boys from similar backgrounds also show elevated rates of anxiety and depression early in high school, though the difference is more pronounced with girls.

By late high school, many of these children may begin to use drugs and alcohol regularly to self-medicate their depression and anxiety. And for some, this will develop into significant problems and addiction.

In addition to depression, anxiety and substance use, rule breaking and psychosomatic disorders are all elevated among affluent teens. They are also prone to eating disorders and cutting.

Perfectionism and Isolation

Two predominant factors emerge with young people from privileged families: perfectionism and emotional isolation.

Children and young adults can feel a tremendous amount of pressure to achieve when parents are overly involved in how well they perform and inadequately involved in monitoring and supporting them in other areas. These parents often seem to be more concerned with how their children do, rather than who they are. They pour time, attention and money into ensuring that their child consistently makes it to the soccer game, while inconsistently making it to the dinner table.

When parents place an excessively high value on outstanding performance, their children begin to see anything less than perfection as failure. This can leave them feeling angry and isolated.

Feelings of isolation seem to be especially common among children from wealthier families. Research is now beginning to tell us that there is an inverse relationship between closeness and high income. Children from lower income homes are far more likely to report feeling close to their parents than those from higher income homes. Material advantages do not lessen the sting of parents’ unavailability. Friends, nannies, housekeepers, au pairs, and older siblings cannot substitute for a concerned and involved parent.

At the Claudia Black Center, I see a lot of what I refer to as father hunger ─ Dad’s not involved in a manner that makes the child feel valued or supported. Many fathers are caught up in their highly demanding work schedules and often act as financial providers for the family, but do not have an emotional connection with their kids. Or, in many cases, they are absent and only attempt to connect through messages about the child’s value being directly related to their performance in school, sports, etc.

With father hunger comes a lot of mother enmeshment–that is, the mother’s identity, worth and value is tied solely to her children. This is exacerbated when she is also not getting her emotional needs met by her husband. She looks to her children for validation and emotional support, and in doing so has difficulty setting appropriate limits. She does not want to be rejected by them, and they fuse in a type of co-dependent relationship.

Also, many parents end up being absent in their own addictions. Many young adults we see, regardless of their socioeconomic background, have parents who are preoccupied with something other than parenting. They may have a father or mother who is rarely present not only because of work, but also because of substance abuse, gambling, sexually acting out, or their many boyfriends or girlfriends. Many times these parents’ absence is due to their own untreated depression.

Healing the Family

All of this simply reinforces the need for the strong family programming at the Claudia Black Center. We start by offering private Skype sessions between therapists and the parents of patients within one week of admission. In the first sessions, the focus is typically on responding to the urgent emotional impact of having a child in treatment. Following sessions focus on education about family systems, addiction, and healthy boundaries.

Then, we ask the family to attend a five-day, multi-family workshop along with their young adult patient. It is a powerful week and one that is often transformative for the family members and the family system as a whole. We teach with a strong experiential focus; parents and siblings of patients engage within the community. What becomes clear throughout the process is that family members share an abounding love for one another in spite of a history of challenging family dynamics. As ongoing recovery resources are needed for the young adult, we strongly encourage it for other family members as well.

Let Us Help

One of the most gratifying things about our work at the Claudia Black Center is hearing from members of our patients’ families about the difference our program has made in their relationships with their children. Recently, one father said, “I’m so glad I came. I thought I knew my son, but this week has really been the birth of our relationship.”

We are also proud to hear from family members who learn more about themselves through the program, and begin their own healing process. One Mom recently said,

“I realize I need my own recovery… I never understood at all why I did the things I did, and now I not only know my daughter better, but I know me maybe for the first time. Thanks, you have given us not just hope, but direction, and the opportunity to be a real family.”

If your 18–26 year old child is struggling with addiction, depression or other behavioral issues – or if you are a young adult yourself facing these problems ─ give us a call today at 855-333-6075. We can help you overcome the pain and isolation, and build healthier, happier relationships.