By Nancy Sadock, MA, LMFT
I’ll never forget what my pediatrician said to me after the birth of my first child. I can still picture myself as an anxious, inexperienced mom firing a barrage of questions at him as he quietly examined all 6 pounds 13 ounces of her. I wanted to know how to DO everything perfectly so she could have the perfect life. From umbilical cord care to sleeping positions, I did not give him a break! Finally, with more gentleness than exasperation, he stopped the examination, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Just take her home and give her all the love you can and she will be fine”! Ahhh…I calmed down and breathed a deep sigh of relief. Little did I understand the depth of the wisdom or the enormity of the task he just delivered.
Fast forward to recent months. With my fourth child in his 3rd year of college I have been asked by several different groups to come in and facilitate conversations about youth “at risk” in Fairfield County. These discussions have centered on a well researched and provocative New York Times bestseller called, The Price of Privilege, by Madeline Levine, PhD.
Levine is a practicing psychologist with over 30 years of experience treating teens in affluent Marin County CA, similar in many ways to Fairfield County. She began noticing a growing new type of teen client that caused her alarm. The new teens did not fit the profile of acting out, drug using, difficult to mange kids that used to dominate her practice. Instead, they presented with no great urgency for care. They often had a vague sense that something was wrong. On the surface they were polite and well mannered. Usually strong students, most were on track to go to the best colleges, if not an Ivy League school. However, when Levine began to probe, the teens reported feeling too pressured, misunderstood, anxious, angry, sad, and empty. They lacked enthusiasm and creativity. She compared her findings with other professionals treating teens in affluent communities and the similarities were confirmed. Sadly, she found that 22% of adolescent girls from affluent communities suffer from clinical depression, which is three times the national rate for the same group. Statistics for teen boys were not far behind and postulated to be less only because boys are more apt to self medicate with excessive use of drugs and alcohol to treat their underlying anxiety and depression. How could this be happening in our affluent communities where our children seem to be given every advantage to succeed?
Levine found that this new group of teens shared a similar home environment: THEY TENDED TO LACK DISCIPLINE, WHILE THE DEMANDS ON THEM FOR PERFORMANCE WAS HIGH. She analyzed that lack of discipline resulted in teens who were not able to manage themselves; in fact they lacked a sense of their inner core SELF since they were so preoccupied with performing for others. The high emphasis on performance resulted in teens feeling valued for what they did instead of who they are. A sense of disconnection from parents and others followed. One teen lamented, “My mother is everywhere and nowhere”. This teen described the sad result of the parenting trap into which we all can fall: relating to our children in all the activities of DOING whatever we believe it takes to succeed in life and not focusing enough on BEING in a loving connected relationship with them that involves parenting with both love and limits (discipline).
The good news is that Levine does not blame well-intentioned parents or leave us feeling hopeless. She provides solutions that can reverse this trend. Here are a few examples:
- Share family dinners, traditions, and rituals together as often as possible.
- Emphasize cooperation and helping others above competition.
- Have your children do household chores to give them a sense of worth and belonging to one another.
- Spend time getting to know your child.
- Let your life be an example of the values you hope your children will adopt.
- Become involved in your church or synagogue so your children can experience a culture of loving connection.
- Develop your own sense of self, because that is critical to the healthy development of your child’s sense of self.
As I closed the book, I could hear my pediatrician continuing to speak his timeless truth about our child’s greatest need from us in order to truly be successful in life: “Just bring them home and give them all the love you can”. Easier said than done! But it is the greatest calling we have as parents. Providing loving connection with our children is what really makes them privileged.