Despite what many believe, children raised in wealthy families are considered at-risk for mental health issue

# Children raised in wealthy families are considered at-risk for depression, anxiety, self-harm substance use, and more

It may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s true. Although the risks to young people growing up in low-income contexts are frequently discussed (and for good reason—the burdens of poverty can be harmful for children and adolescents), adolescents in affluent families also often struggle (opens new window).

If your family is considered affluent, perhaps even in the top 1%, you may be used to people thinking that life is just easy for you and your family. Our society often has little sympathy for the wealthy.

Yet—as you know—money doesn’t buy happiness. Wealthy people frequently struggle with their mental health and relationships, including feelings of loneliness, anxieties about how they are perceived, guilt, and wariness about trusting others.

Research shows that children and teens growing up in affluent contexts also face unique risks to their mental health. Yes, family wealth offers children great freedom and privilege.

But depression, anxiety, substance use, and criminal behavior are common among teens in the wealthiest families. These mental health problems arise in part because of the typical struggles of being a teenager, as well as challenges specific to affluent families.

In this article, we describe warning signs that can alert you if your teenager is struggling with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, self-harm, or substance use and other rule-breaking. We then outline two key challenges specific to affluent teens: excessive pressure to succeed and isolation from parents (both literal and emotional). In the last section we offer some suggestions for affluent parents to help support their teenager’s positive development and well-being.

# How do I know if my child is struggling with their mental health?

Depression Depression is marked by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and loss of interest in activities. Signs of depression include the following:
  • Feelings of sadness and hopelessness
  • Loss of interest in activities one used to enjoy
  • Irritability
  • Low self-esteem and sensitivity to rejection
  • Trouble concentrating and making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Agitation or restlessness
  • Tiredness and sleeping more than usual
  • Changes in appetite
  • Complaints of body aches and headaches
  • Social withdrawal
  • Decline in school performance
  • Problems with alcohol or drugs
Anxiety Anxiety disorders can include excessive worry, specific phobias, and panic attacks. Signs of anxiety include:
  • Excessive fear or worry.
  • Feelings of restlessness
  • Excessive vigilance
  • Extreme feelings of stress
  • Social withdrawal
  • Difficulty sleeping or insomnia
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Chronic physical complaints, such as headaches or stomach aches
  • Problems with drugs and alcohol
Self-injury Teens may engage in self-harm or self-injury (also known as non-suicidal self-injury or NSSI) as an emotional release or to distract them from emotional pain. Self-harm may occur when teens are feeling chronically depressed or anxious, or after a stressful event (such as a breakup, bullying or fall-out from a peer group, conflict with family). Signs your teen may be engaging in self-injury include:
  • Depression, anxiety, or another mental health disorder
  • A sudden increase of stress, anxiety, or symptoms of depression, possibly related to problems with peers or at school
  • A sudden fascination with self-harm, such as following people on social media who post about self-harm
  • Exposure to peers or stories of peers in media who are engaging in self-harm
  • Conflict or withdrawal from family and friends
  • Injuries from cutting or scratching, burns, or hitting oneself
  • Multiple marks on your teen’s skin that appear close in proximity and for which your teen doesn’t have an explanation for
  • A desire to hide the skin, such as wearing long-sleeved shirts or multiple band-aids to hide wounds
Suicidaltiy Many teens who contemplate or attempt suicide experience chronic depression and/or acutely stressful events that may feel impossible to overcome (including bullying, a break-up, trouble with the law, an unplanned pregnancy, or failing to meet high parental expectations). Signs your teen may be contemplating suicide include:
  • Depression, anxiety, or another mental health disorder
  • Changes in appetite or sleep
  • Drastic personality changes
  • Severe conflict with or withdrawal from friends or family
  • Decline in school
  • Sexual promiscuity, truancy, vandalism, or unusually violent or rebellious behavior
  • Problems with drugs or alcohol
  • Talking or writing about suicide, even if they seem to be joking
  • Exposure to the suicide of a family member or friend

  • # First, children from affluent families often experience outside pressure to succeed, including to strive for perfection.

    In high-achieving or upwardly-mobile families, parents often compel children to succeed in academic and extracurricular pursuits. This success maximizes their chances of getting into good schools and succeeding academically and financially down the line.

    Encouraging hard work and high standards can be a good thing. It builds skills and resilience that can help children succeed in the future. It’s understandable many parents may feel the need to push their kids to achieve at the highest levels—as our society becomes more competitive, building skills and a strong resume from early in childhood becomes increasingly necessary to succeed in certain pursuits. Parents are not to blame for trying to promote healthy development and help their kids have great lives.

    However, problems may arise when parents and others pressure teens to always strive to achieve more, neglect to acknowledge or celebrate their successes, or value a teen’s achievements at the detriment of their general well-being and happiness. When parents are intolerant of mistakes or excessively criticize their child’s performance in school and extracurriculars, they can alienate themselves from their children and cause unwanted harm to the child’s mental health.

    failure in not an option

    Importantly, even if parents never directly tell their children they need to earn all A’s or be the best on their sports team, they may unknowingly convey these pressures in other ways. For example, kids learn from their parents’ behavior, as well as the things they directly say. Parents who frequently self-criticize when they make mistakes or who work endlessly without taking breaks may be sending implicit messages to their teens about the importance of striving for perfection.

    Even when parents actively encourage their child to relieve the pressure on themselves, teens pick up on inconsistency—for example, when a parent encourages their child to go easy on themselves but they themselves openly self-criticize—and may fall in line with that you do, rather than what you say.

    For teens in the top 1%, simply seeing and knowing how hard their family members worked and how much success they achieved can set an unattainably high standard or make teens feel like they need to “make it on their own” to prove their worth.

    Achievement pressure also comes from many places outside the family—American culture today (opens new window) promotes workaholism, fierce individualism, and equating one’s self-worth with one’s professional achievements.

    This often means that for children in affluent families, the pressure to succeed may come from all sides. For example, at elite schools, teachers and administrators often exert immense pressure on teens to succeed. Teachers also recognize the necessity of hard work for a student with potential, and may encourage teens to strive for perfection or neglect to praise their smaller successes.

    overworked young woman

    Teens also pick up on ideas they see in TV and movies that promote success-at-all-costs mentalities. Peers who are growing up in similar affluent contexts may also have perfectionistic tendencies that can lead to unhealthy social comparison or competition among friends.

    Teens may feel that they can never take a break—they must always be studying, practicing, or seeking out new opportunities that colleges want to see. In doing so, they may sacrifice self-care, sleep, down time with friends and family, and just-for-fun activities. Spending excessive time engaging in thought and activities that are focused on ones self (self-focused attention), may also lead to depression (opens new window) and anxiety (opens new window) and could limit their sense of social connection.

    For teens in affluent families, this extreme need to always achieve more may be all they have ever seen among their family members and peers; the idea of taking a break or striving for things like compassion for oneself and others may be foreign or even considered shameful.

    Importantly, however, research (opens new window) has shown that “overscheduling”—or the busyness of teens’ lives as they pursue success in a range of activities—is not directly associated with mental health problems for most kids. Rather, parental criticism and external pressure to achieve perfection causes the real problems.

    Previous research showed that there are two types of perfectionism. The first is an adaptive (beneficial) type that encourages hard-work, organization, the setting of high but appropriate standards. Adaptive perfectionism allows people to derive satisfaction—but not self-worth—from achievement.

    In contrast, maladaptive perfectionism (detrimental) encourages intolerance of imperfections, an excessive need to avoid failure, setting standards that are often unattainably high, and resorting to harsh self-criticism. The maladaptive form of perfectionism is associated with mental health concerns like depression and anxiety (opens new window) and with teens’ feelings of school burnout (opens new window).

    For teens who are prone to or feel pressured from others to be maladaptively perfectionistic, their sense of self-worth can become tied to their achievements. When they fail or stumble—normal parts of learning and growing—they may experience extreme feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, or distress. These feelings can manifest into symptoms of anxiety and depression, or may lead to teens turning to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate to cope with their negative emotions. Without mature cognitive and language skills to express their emotions and needs, they may also lash out and rebel, such as by stealing or defacing property.

    In contrast, teens who develop an internal motivation to succeed—rather than striving to make others, such as their parents or teachers happy—may be happier and healthier. Teens who are motived by their own interests, passions, and goals, rather than fear of failure or letting others down, often have better outcomes in both mental health and their actual pursuits.

    This type of internal motivation often results in teens feeling more joy, having more enthusiasm about the tasks they pursue, and feeling greater satisfaction when they succeed, which can lead to a positive spiral of well-being and success.

    Woman with open arms and joy

    # Second, children growing up in affluent communities are often disconnected from their parents—both literally and in an emotional sense.

    For some affluent families, this may again seem counterintuitive. Some parents are hyper-involved in their children’s lives, including being physically present and monitoring their child’s interactions with outside influences (e.g., TV, peers).

    For other affluent families, however, literal disconnection is common. Parents in the 1% often have demanding careers and may have less time to devote to family time. Children who are constantly engaged in school or after-school activities may not feel that they can afford spending free time with family. Some parents also believe that limited supervision can promote self-sufficiency.

    While the burdens of busy life are real and supporting children’s developing autonomy is indeed beneficial, simply spending time together as a family is important for Emotional Closeness. Family time should be a regular part of daily life, and include having open discussions about challenging experiences and feelings.

    Family time should also be about just having fun and relaxing. Engaging in an activity together that you and your child enjoy (going shopping, watching a movie, playing a sport or game) can build closeness, relieve stress, and let the child know it’s OK to take breaks and enjoy life.

    Another benefit of family time is that it helps foster Emotional Closeness between adolescents and their parents, which is the feeling of safety, intimacy, comfort, understanding, and affirmation that develop in loving relationships. This kind of closeness between parents and children promotes children’s disclosure to parents of their feelings and challenges, which then provides an opportunity for parents to not only learn about how their child is feeling, but also provide warmth and affirmation.

    Studies have also found that, on average, Emotional Closeness to parents decreases as family income increases (opens new window). Emotional Closeness to parents can protect adolescents from anxiety and depression and promote well-being. Emotional Closeness may be even more important among affluent families to promote adolescents’ disclosure when they are struggling, as pressures to achieve and reach perfection may inhibit kids from acknowledging when their mental health is suffering or when they need to take a break.

    In these situations, a close relationship with a parent may be the difference between parents knowing and not knowing about their child’s distress.

    # What can parents do to support the mental well-being of teens in affluent homes?

    Validate your teen’s experiences. Being a teenager can be confusing. Figuring out how to grow up and meet high expectations, while also grappling with the isolation and discomfort that can come with living in the top wealth bracket, can be disorienting.

    • When your child is struggling with hard emotions or experiences, convey to them that their reactions are normal and they have permission to feel that way. Statements like “that makes sense,” “Lots of people in your position would react that way,” “I would have been upset by that too,” or “it’s OK to feel this way” can make them feel understood and not alone.
    • Reflecting back what your child says can be a useful way to bring clarity to their feelings and indicate your attention and care. This can include small things—like a nod or “mm-hmm”—or could be a chance for you to make sure you understand the situation, sometimes even shining light on the source of the emotions for your child (“it sounds like when she said X you felt a bit Y, is that right?”).

    Help teens find internal motivation. Internally-driven pursuit of success in a domain your teen finds exciting can help them enjoy school and extracurriculars more and build an adaptive orientation towards achievement.

    • Help adolescents identify their personal values and meaningful activities that they want to engage in, not only focusing on achievements that will boost their resume.
    • Know your child’s favorite hobbies, pursuits, interests, and passions; identifying what captures your child’s interest and attention can help you notice warning signs of mental health problems when your child’s interests wane.

    Help teens avoid getting stuck in the “I can always do more” mindset. Maladaptive perfectionism can promote mental health problems, but balancing hard work with taking breaks and self-care can promote well-being.

    • Encourage your child to balance their important school and extracurricular pursuits with doing things just for fun—enjoy time with family and friends, read for pleasure, rest or sleep in on weekends, and take breaks.
    • Think of ways that you yourself can model good self-care and work-life balance.
    • Do you often apologize when you need to take a break? Do your children hear you being self-critical when you make small mistakes? Extending kindness to yourself can help your child learn to do the same.

    Foster close emotional relationships with teens. Emotional Closeness to parents promotes adolescents’ mental health. Closeness also can encourage adolescents to come to parents to when they need to process their failures and feelings.

    • Make a point to spend quality time with your teen on a regular basis, including consistently checking in with them to ask how they are doing and feeling.
    • When your child is up for chatting (opens new window), really listen to them—put your phone down, pause Netflix, and be genuinely curious in what they have to say. Remember that they may not necessarily want to share the things you want to hear—provide a space for them to talk about and process the things that feel important to them.
    • Use this opportunity to respond in a way that affirms how they are feeling. Phrases like “that must have been really hard for you,” “that sounds like a totally normal reaction to that situation,” or questions like “what was that like for you?” can help adolescents feel heard and keep talking.
    • Avoid using this as an opportunity for instructing, lecturing, or criticizing teens. Try to use listening and probing questions to assist your teen in figuring out how they feel about a situation or finding ways to solve a problem—avoid the temptation to jump in to fix the problem for them.
    • For some teens (and parents) these conversations are uncomfortable. Here are some ways to make it more comfortable—consider a walk or car ride to avoid the need to make eye contact, or bring it up while you and your child are doing an activity together like making dinner.
    • Organize unstructured, fun time for your family to spend together—with no responsibilities or pressures. Try to find a way to work this time into your month or week.

    Encourage teens to develop compassion and altruism. Doing things for others makes people feel good. For highly affluent teens in particular, who may feel guilt or confusion about their family’s wealth, giving back to the community can feel especially good. Altruism can also be important for adolescents who are spending most of their time building their resumes, which may lead to excessive self-focus. Doing things for others also builds connection with others, which can buffer against the disconnection adolescents often feel.

    • Coordinate family activities that involve volunteering and giving back to the community.
    • Help your teen practice gratitude for the many privileges they enjoy, including being able to help others in need.
    • Consider how you are serving as a role model for compassion and generosity in your day-to-day activities. You serving as a role model of giving back to others may indirectly help your children do the same and, in turn, improve their sense of connection and well-being.

    Be mindful of messages you may be inadvertently sending to your kids about the value of achievement. This may require you to reassess our own values and beliefs about hard work and achievement to make sure you balance striving for success with attention to mental health.

    • Reflect on how you yourself can develop an adaptive orientation towards achievement that you can model for your children.
    • When your child shares their experiences with you—a report card, how they performed in a sports game, etc.—celebrate their successes and praise their persistence. Make it clear that it is OK to not always succeed.
    • Ask your child (with genuine curiosity about the answer rather than using this as a teaching moment) how they feel about this experience—are they proud of it? Do they want to brainstorm ways to do differently in the future? What went well about this [semester, game, performance, etc.] and what didn’t go well?
    • Acknowledge that learning is hard and takes hard work; try to normalize their struggles rather than expressing disappointment.

    Life can be hard for teenagers, and growing up in an affluent family can present some unique challenges. Work-life balance can be hard to achieve for teens in highly affluent families, where pressure to succeed, avoid failure, and “have it together” may be higher than for teens in other contexts.

    Parents can play a key role in building their child’s resilience by fostering a close, loving relationship, promoting a wholistic approach to life’s successes and failures, and both encouraging and modeling self-compassion and rest.

    # Authors

    Dr. Doug Kaufman is the CEO and Founder of Vertroos Health and Nika. You can learn more about Dr. Kaufman here (opens new window).

    Anne (Annie) Maheux is a Ph.D. student in Developmental and Social Psychology at the University of Delaware and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. Her research examines sociocultural influences on adolescent development with a focus on gender, as well as how peers and media affect adolescent mental health, sexual initiation experiences, and academic achievement. Her research has been published in high-impact peer-reviewed journals and has been supported by the American Psychological Association and the Character Lab Research Network.

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    # Do you or your child need support right now?

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