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Are children of privilege advantaged or burdened? We talk to some parents and experts about the challenges and the pros and cons of privilege.

Children of privilege are showing signs of emotional distress and escalating mental illness.

A  mother of two teenagers from Gauteng confesses: “Our children are sad. Even though we give them everything – more than we had when we were growing up – I think we were happier. One of my daughter’s friends had a panic attack in class the other day. It was anxiety about a test and the growing pressures at school. Her parents really want her to get into a good university, so there’s that burden too. There is something so wrong about children experiencing that kind of extreme stress. I guess money really can’t buy happiness.”

Unrealistic expectations

According to a new study, it has become increasingly common for teenagers – particularly those of privilege – to exhibit mental health problems, neuroses, substance abuse and eating disorders.  Suniya Luthar of Columbia University’s Teachers College is a psychologist. She says her research revealed that many children were simply unable to cope with the continual demands made upon them by their aspirational parents.

Speaking to the Daily Mail, Luthar said: “The evidence suggests that  young people of privilege are much more vulnerable than in previous generations. The evidence points to one cause: the pressure for high-octane achievement.”

Challenges of privilege

While less-privileged families face enormous challenges, privileged teenagers seem to face their own set. Some experts attribute these to an increasingly narcissistic society. A society obsessed with taking selfies, documenting every aspect of their lives on social media and following reality TV celebrities. However, Harvard University’s Dan Kindlon presents another interesting contention. It relates to how families have shrunk and how children are now seen as more precious.

“It was kind of hard to think that the world revolved around you when you had eight brothers and sisters,” says Kindlon, author of Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children in an Indulgent Age (Hyperion).

But it’s not just parents who think their children are special. Children believe it too and are enforcing it, capitalising on their privilege.

The price of privilege

In The Price of Privilege (HarperCollins), by clinical psychologist Madeline Levine, she comments on the culture of affluence and its effect on the youth.

“When I closed the door behind my last unhappy teenage patient of the week, I slumped into my well-worn chair feeling depleted and surprisingly close to tears,” she writes. “The 15 year old who had just left my office was bright, personable, highly pressured by her adoring, but frequently preoccupied, parents, and very angry. She had used a razor to incise the word ‘empty’ on her left forearm. I tried to imagine how intensely unhappy my young patient must have felt to cut her distress into her flesh.”

An escalating trend

Levine says she has seen this trend escalate at alarming rates in the past few years. She notes that the culture of both materialism and its psychological byproducts have become unmanageable for parents – mothers in particular – and their children.

A lack of authentic sense of self

Many privileged children project confidence and know how to make a good impression. However, an alarming number lack the basic foundation of psychological development: an authentic sense of self.

A lack of practical skills

Despite parental concern and economic advantage, Levine observed that many of the teens she counsels lack practical skills for navigating the world. They can be easily frustrated or impulsive. They also have trouble anticipating the consequences of their actions.

Overly dependent

They are also overly dependent on the opinions of parents, teachers, coaches and peers. They frequently rely on others,  to pave the way on difficult tasks and grease the wheels of everyday life. While often personable and academically successful, they aren’t particularly creative or interesting. They complain about being bored despite a range of material possessions, of which technology forms a large part.


The evidence suggests that the privileged young are much more vulnerable than in previous generations. The evidence points to one cause: the pressure for high-octane achievement.

Unhappiness on the rise

If that’s the situation in the US, is South Africa following suit?

“There has definitely been a rise in depression, eating disorders and suicide,” says Taryn Brown, an educational psychologist at Bryanwood Therapy and Assessment Centre in Sandton, Gauteng. “According to SADAG (the South African Depression and Anxiety Group), suicide rates in teenagers in our country have nearly doubled in the last 15 years.

Pressurised parents

“While I’m not entirely sure this trend can be solely attributed to the privileged in SA, I do think there is so much pressure on parents these days to ‘do it all’. Parents are overwhelmed and technology means parents are constantly in contact with work. There is often an emotional disconnect between parents and their children. It’s very uncommon these days that there’s one parent at home like in previous generations. The financial and societal pressures have left most parents overextended. Some parents use technology as a babysitter. The result is corrosion in the traditional family as we knew it.”

Levine believes that there’s an inverse relationship between parental income and closeness between parents and children and she suggests adopting the ritual of eating dinner as a family as it will cultivate a healthy closeness. Children in such a family are much less likely to suffer from psychological problems.

Read more on anxiety and stress.

What about other authority figures and mentors?

But should we be focused solely on parents? What about teachers, coaches and school leadership? Is their role not as important in nurturing and moulding our children to place value on the right things?

“Parents are only one part of the equation,” says a Cape Town mom who recalls a very “uncomfortable” interaction at a recent parent-teacher meeting.

“The teachers were telling me how anxious my son is in class and that I am putting too much pressure on him, but my son tells me how the teachers and coaches at the school are constantly telling him and his classmates that they need to do better, study harder, and participate in more extramural activities. He says they are often told that if they don’t pass a test they’ll fail their grade or get detention. This makes him very nervous because he doesn’t want to let anyone down.”

In pursuit of happiness

If everybody’s intentions are good and honourable, yet our children aren’t happy or sufficiently emotionally equipped, how can we raise well-adjusted, responsible and grateful children? These experts offer a few ideas:

Keep things in perspective

“Materialism causes children to place value on external factors (receiving a cellphone for a good school report) above internal factors, such as feeling proud of their effort,” says Brown. “Everything we want our children to value starts with the parents. Moms and dads need to model behaviour that shows humility and gratitude for the privileges they have.”

Spend time with those who struggle

“Giving time to those who are challenged by their lack of resources, disabilities or are marginalised in some way can certainly help us to not get so full of ourselves. My research has found that volunteerism and community-based learning make people more compassionate. Plus, it helps lower their stress levels,” says Thomas Plante, clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford University.

Make real connections

“Turning off the TV at least one night a week and monitoring internet usage is very important. Such actions teach children the values that can lead to greater life satisfaction. Children who become too immersed in media glitz feel unfulfilled or even like failures because they are not fabulously rich or famous,” comments psychologist and Harvard University lecturer Susan E Linn.

An inconvenient truth

“Not every child can be shaped and accelerated into university material. But all children can have their spirits broken and anxiety stoked by too much stress, too little downtime and too much attention given to external factors. Parents should learn new ways to express their love and concern, trading their fears of failure for faith in their children’s innate strengths.Parents should prioritise the joys and challenges of life in the present overanxious visions of an uncertain future,” suggests Levine.

It’s not a chore – it’s learning in action

“Parents today want their children spending time on things that can bring them success. But, ironically, we’ve stopped doing the one thing that’s actually been a proven predictor of success. And, that’s household chores,” says Richard Rende, a developmental psychologist and co-author of the book Raising Can-Do Kids (Tarcher Perigee). While it may seem like a small message now, agreeing to let your children skip their chores so they can do homework sends the wrong message. It implies that school achievements are more important than caring about others.

Samantha Page