Megan Dottermusch (North Western University)
Family life is very different from how it was 65 years ago. Modern times have produced an increase in conveniences. With an ever-evolving technological world, more job options for men and women, and fewer children per household, we’ve opened the door to greater economic affluence. These changes often occur before we’ve had a chance to measure the sociological and cultural influences. One example is the impact that financial affluence has on adolescent development – increasing this age group’s risk of problems with mental illness and substance abuse that can effect them for the rest of their lives.
In a recent study, licensed clinical psychologist and Executive Vice President at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, Dr. Cheryl Rampage, discovered that affluence itself puts adolescents at risk for developmental and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and addiction. The United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and advances since the 1950s have significantly improved many of the population’s health and house size, yet Dr. Rampage finds that we are in greater need of help than ever. In this piece, we will look at several factors that have made adolescents particularly vulnerable.
In Changes in the Distribution of Family Hours Worked Since 1950, Ellen R. McGrattan and Richard Rogerson report that, “One of the most dramatic changes in the U.S. economy over the last 50 years has been the substantial increase in hours of work by married women: although aggregate hours worked have been relatively constant, hours of work by married women have increased by roughly a factor of three.” This accounts for what Rampage states in her infographic, designed by Counseling@Northwestern, and study.
Traditional 1950s households seen in shows like Leave it to Beaver were often comprised of a breadwinning father and a full-time stay-at-home mother. The time devoted to family life is something our two-person household of full-time workers today can’t contend with. That’s a reality for many American families. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau from 2002 and 2008 reported that the number of dual earning married couples with kids under 18 increased from 31 percent in 1976 to 66 percent in 2007.
Affluence brings more opportunities, conveniences, and buying power. One place this is evident is our house sizes. According to a 2006 National Public Radio article, what was considered average for a house in 1950 (983 square feet) is miniscule in comparison to 2005 (2,414 square feet). As house sizes grew, American families were also having fewer children. Bigger homes with more space are obvious perks, but the result is less family cohesiveness. That’s an unfortunate consequence since Rampage states that closeness is “the very best predictor for healthy adjustment in both male and female adolescents.” In addition to physical closeness, a decline in emotional closeness, a result of quality family time from weekday family dinners to weekend activities, is responsible for an increased risk in developmental problems and mental health issues. She cites a 1999 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, which found that “girls’ closeness to mothers lessens their vulnerability to depression, and girls’ closeness to fathers lowers the likelihood that they will use drugs. For boys, both mother and father closeness play a role in reducing depressive symptoms.” In a sense, we’ve traded more money for less time and our children are suffering the consequences.
Another factor that contributes to adolescent problems in the upper middle and upper class is parental expectations about success. The same ‘work hard mentality’ for economic success seems more volatile and unpredictable today. Many American parents fear that even if their child has a stellar resume and education, it may not be enough to secure their future. Parents may have the financial income to afford extracurricular activities and academic resources such as tutoring, but they also expect more. When children believe their parents’ love is conditional based on achievement and academic success, their self-esteem and sense of self-worth are at risk.
Economic affluence is a privilege, but can come at a significant cost to the well being of adolescence. Money itself isn’t detrimental, but the ways in which it has shaped parenting beliefs, roles and values can be. The key to mitigate these risks is to learn from parents in the 1950s; parents back then gave their kids autonomy while also spending more quality time with them. For example, while parents today overcompensate for their kids (e.g., homework, chores, and scheduling their activities) in fear of their failure, and perhaps to compensate for a lack of time spent with them, parents in the 1950s allowed their kids a chance to fail, succeed and learn from their mistakes.
Yes, we’re wealthier as a culture as a whole. The affluent have more opportunities, greater financial freedom, better health, bigger homes and the door is wide open to what we can accomplish. We’re more communicative than we’ve ever been. We’ve gotten more rights as a country, more freedom to talk about issues that used to be taboo and we’ve grown richer (emotionally, financially and spiritually) as a result. On the other hand, because of our successes, we’ve also grown fearful of losing it all. Parents today have gone through economic downturns, natural tragedies, seen a dramatic change in the economy and are fearful of their own children experiencing hardship. As a result, we often swoop in before they experience hurt, pain or distress. But Rampage says, “Being rescued from every failure creates a fear of failure, and leads to anxiety and risk aversion.” In trying to save our children from suffering, we’re preventing them from learning the very skills we push them to gain academically. “Making one’s own decisions and learning from the consequences is the basic methodology of constructing a self,” she says.
When we continually mistrust our children’s ability to fend for themselves, we interrupt and stunt their own physical and emotional growth. Rampage suggests a healthy balance that intertwines both structure and freedom to necessitate self-efficacy in adolescence. Rampage says that parents can help their children’s development in the following ways:
1) Provide structure and give children responsibility because they are competent enough to handle it.
2) Clearly communicate that parental love is not dependent on their children’s success or accomplishments.
3) Express parental love when children may least deserve it — “infamous storms and drama of adolescence.”
Activities such as holding regular family dinners, listening compassionately and nonjudgmentally, assigning routine household chores and demonstrating their unconditional love can go a long way in making a difference in their teens’ lives. Through consistent love, support, quality time and educating them on how to make it on their own and then letting them succeed or fail, Rampage says we can curb some of the potential negative consequences of wealth. In doing so, parents give their teens enough survival skills and emotional maturity to fly from the nest successfully, happily and with confidence to thrive.
Adler, Margot (2006) ‘Behind the ever-expanding American dream house‘ National Public Radio, July 4th.
Ellen R. McGrattan & Richard Rogerson (2008) ‘Changes in the Distribution of Family Hours Worked Since 1950’ Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Research Department Staff Report 397.
Rampage, Cheryl (2008) ‘The Challenge of Prosperity: Affluence and Psychological Distress Among Adolescents’ Clinical Science Insights, Vol. 4.
Megan Dottermusch is the community manager for the online masters in counseling program at Northwestern University offered by The Family Institute. TFI offers students the unique opportunity to gain clinical experience and acquire key skills to become successful clinical mental health counselors regardless of where they live. Megan is passionate about promoting proper nutrition and fitness, combating mental health stigmas, and practicing everyday mindfulness.
Image: Evan-Amos (no restrictions)