This weekend a news story broke about a teen who was stated to be suffering from “affluenza.” The teenager reportedly got drunk, got behind the wheel of a car and killed four people. A psychologist reportedly then used the term “affluenza” to describe a condition from which the teen is suffering. “Affluenza” was indicated to have to do with things like not being made to experience consequences, having parents who don’t discipline sufficiently, and who resist the discipline efforts of others, and, in some cases, living with affluence. This condition was reported to have been used as a mitigating variable for determining the outcome of the teenager in court.
I’m not writing this blog to comment on the legal issues or what might constitute justice in this case, as those questions are outside the purview of my discipline. I am writing for two purposes: First, I wish to eschew mental health professionals making up their own terms and using them this way. Second, I wish to remark on the true psychological factors that sometimes can come into play in cases like this.
“Affluenza” is not only not an official diagnosis in either of the primary psychiatric diagnostic systems in the world (the DSM and the ICD systems), but it isn’t even a condition under investigation by researchers. In this context the term was justified by the psychologist, in an online interview, based on his “30 plus years of experience.” So, is that the criteria we use? Once a mental health professional gets enough years under his or her belt s/he can just start making up conditions and using them to mitigate legal consequences? How many years of experience before it’s okay to do that? What if someone with more years of experience disagrees? As someone who devotes his career to bringing quality mental health science to the public, and who finds that the public is confused enough already about real conditions, I find such behavior, if true, to be reprehensible. I don’t know more about the specifics of this case than what I saw and read reported on CNN.com. But, if it’s true that a psychologist, acting in his capacity as an expert witness, used this term, and the use of that term affected the outcome of the case, then I hope it will also be true that the licensing board(s) in any state(s) where that psychologist is licensed will ask him to explain himself.
I don’t pretend to understand the nuances of this particular case. Hardly. But, I can speak generally about the factors that can sometimes facilitate a teen acting in this manner. There are often at least two primary factors in play:
• #1: Poor monitoring. As readers of this blog, and my parenting book, know the research correlating an absence of effective monitoring and risky behaviors among teenagers is compelling. Moreover, unmonitored teens tend to associate with other unmonitored teens; this can then create a risk taking and destructive synergy.
#2: Poor discipline. Again, I’ve written a lot about this. Discipline does not equal butt kicking. The etymology of the word is “to teach.” Effective discipline involves growing a kid’s capacity to do things when s/he doesn’t feel like it by using education, warmth and firmness. It also involves allowing youth, in most circumstances, to experience the consequences of their choices.
Tolstoy said it well “Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in it’s own way.” Resilient kids and effective households not only employ effective monitoring and discipline, but they also:
• Do things to promote closeness between each parent and each child (e.g., special time).
• Engage in adaptive and regular rituals.
• Discover and promote each youth’s competencies.
• Collaborate effectively with other adults charged with important functions in each youth’s life.
• Maintain good health habits (sleep, diet and physical activity).
• Promote adaptive thinking and independence in each youth.
• Get effective and appropriate help whenever a youth is showing signs of struggling.
These 10 strategies, which are a central them of this blog and my parenting book, operate as a science-based foundation for promoting resilience in kids. The more they are present in a family the lower there is the risk of symptom and dysfunction in youth. The more they are absent the more the soil becomes fertile for stories like we are reading and viewing this weekend on CNN.