The Value of Therapy for Affluent Families

Poverty can have a devastating effect on children and families. Rates of domestic violence, family break-up, and substance abuse are all high in poor communities. But affluent children and families have a number of difficulties as well. Recent studies have found that, beginning around middle school, both boys and girls whose family income exceeds $120,000 suffer from higher rates of depression and anxiety than those from middle-income families. Affluent girls from the pre-teen years onward suffer from higher rates of eating disorders than the general population, and affluent teen boys are at higher risk for abusing drugs and alcohol. Children from more affluent families demonstrate higher levels of social aggression and rule-breaking than children in the general population, and may suffer from higher levels of psychopathology in adulthood (Luthar and Latendresse, 2005).

Madeline Levine, a psychologist from California, wrote a book in 2006 called The Price of Privilege, in which she describes her theories of why these children are at such risk. She maintains that many financially privileged children and teens suffer as a result of aspects of “the culture of affluence” in which they and their families live. Levine believes that the pressure for achievement in school and sports, the overvaluation of toys, games, and clothes, the devaluing of chores and responsibilities not related to achievement, and the lack of time families spend together in activities that are not goal-directed are all inimical to the development of healthy selves and relationships. She believes that many children from affluent families feel that their worth is conditioned on their achievement, and so have difficulty developing feelings of self-worth. When adults in affluent communities shower children with material goods and give them few chores and responsibilities not related to achievement, they deprive them of the opportunity to develop discipline and self-respect. Levine found that children of affluent families have less opportunity to experience a relaxed atmosphere of love and acceptance than many other children do. She found that, while affluent parents may spend time at their children’s sporting events or help them with homework, wealthy families spend less time eating dinner or playing games together than middle class families.

It is important to remember that many affluent families are cohesive and harmonious, and most children from wealthy families do not suffer from emotional or behavioral problems. In addition, families of means hardly represent a monolithic group, and vary a great deal in family structure, ethnicity, geography, religion, etc. Still, it is also true that wealthy families can face particular barriers to positive change. Some of the behavior patterns that produce the most emotional and interpersonal damage are self-reinforcing: busy schedules and a preoccupation with achievement may make for disconnected relationships, but these same habits also help these families to achieve and maintain the material success that so many in the broader society admire. Many of the habits of wealthy families tend to be multi-generational; many parents in affluent families were brought up in families that placed a premium on achievement. In addition, many family members see similar patterns of relating in their environments outside of the family, as affluent communities generally feature less cohesion, in the form of block parties and social events, than middle-class ones.

Many affluent families first come to therapy when a child presents with an emotional or behavioral concern. Therapists who engage with the entire family can often help these families to develop greater cohesion and find more support for the family unit. Through engagement in therapy, many wealthy families find greater intimacy, better communication, and improved mental health for all family members.

-Posted by Jonah Green

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