When Sam called last week, she was scared and frightened. Her beautiful 24-year-old daughter, Harriet, was raging once again, letting her know, in no uncertain terms, that she was a no good, very bad mother. Harriet said she was scared to leave her home, a beautifully furnished apartment at the beach. Furthermore stating that her mother was the sole reason that she had trauma and wanted to harm herself. Sam was exhausted from walking on eggshells with her daughter. Sam and her husband Don had given her everything, a European education at the finest school, investment money to start a T-shirt company, and even a beach cottage.
Sam revealed that Harriet has never wanted for anything, clothes, schools, or housing. When Harriet had problems at school as a young girl, they looked the other way, and tutors got her through. When she came home tipsy or wrapped a car around the tree, they were ever too quick to fix it all and sweep it under the rug. It was as if Harriet lived inside a big cushion of well-meaning bubble wrap, and if anything went wrong, they were the first to save her. As a result, Harriet was lost in a sea of mind-altering substances and mental health issues that made her into a fire-breathing dragon.
Harriet was much like Jeff, whose parents called us when he was 35. Since he was a teen, he had been having problems (alcohol, other drugs, depression, etc.). Every time he got in trouble, he was bailed out. He drunkenly lost his Rolex and was given a replacement the following week. He left college early and was told it was OK not to work. At 35, he was living at home, drinking about 10 beers a day, and spent his time playing video games. His parents said, “that’s just Jack.” Learning to do things for himself was foreign to Jack. Being the only boy in a family of 5 had its benefits, as he was always his Mothers boy-“King Baby”!
As parents, do we do more harm than good? Do we look the other way, bailout, or make excuses for our children? Do we adopt a Gone with the Wind, “I will wait until Tomorrow” posture? Do we want our children to see us as their friends? Do we want to parent? Do we really know how to parent?
Let’s stop for a moment and look at the land of plenty, the terrain of “privileged children”. How do we create them, how do we help them?
The truth is, family wealth does not automatically confer either wisdom in parenting or equanimity of spirit. Not only are children of high wealth are at risk for substance abuse and depression, but they are also oftentimes at risk for not learning basic life skills such as: making their bed, putting away their clothes, applying for college, studying without a tutor, or applying for a job.
Social worker Sally Watkins aptly describes Steve.
“He walked into my office with no anxiety—a cute 8-year-old with tiny designer glasses and a spiky crew cut. He didn’t return my greeting or make eye contact but quickly went to work casing my office to find something to look at or play with. When I could engage him, he wasn’t responsive, often ignored my questions, and appeared bored and indifferent. He couldn’t be engaged most of the time but attempted to entertain himself with whatever he could find.
He denied having any knowledge about what brought him to counseling. “I don’t know,” and shrugs were his most frequent responses with little or no hesitation, indicating the matter wasn’t worth much thought. When I asked him about the most recent school suspension, he dismissed it easily by explaining that he was blamed for something he didn’t do.
“This is boring. Do you have any games?” he asked.
“How about a story game?” I replied.
“That sounds dumb,” he interrupted before I could describe it. “What do you got to eat?”
Highly privileged children need to be prized, need to be loved, need to be cared for, yet highly prized children have been treated in a way that is often ultimately wounding to them. On the surface, highly prized children are self-absorbed, demanding, and indifferent to other people’s desires and needs. Underneath, however, these children are often depressed, unhappy, and lack self-confidence. They create an otherness that masks the reality that they do not know how to interact except in a way that objectifies them and treats them like an ornament.
Children are satisfied for only a short while with what they have before they want something more. They may be returning from Disneyland yet crying because they can’t have a new toy or only got the small fries. They have difficulty entertaining themselves. They can exhibit perfectly wonderful social skills when there is something they want and become the best hostage negotiators in town when they do not get their own way.
Highly prized children can enchant their parents with little or no effort. A hug here, a smile there. Like ornaments on a Holiday tree, they look great on their arms. They are the ultimate Instagram or Facebook post.
Often they have a low tolerance for frustration, and since almost everything is done for them, they have limited experience being challenged to do hard tasks. The people around them (parents, nannies, etc.) express great excitement and amazement for virtually anything they do.
Oftentimes the ornamental child is given enormous control over every aspect of their care. They are frequently picky eaters and are given special foods if they don’t like what their parents are eating. They often stay up late, sleep in their parent’s bed, and live in a world where their desires and needs reign as of the utmost importance. They’ve learned early the tactics of whining, wheedling, emotional blackmail, and extortion to get their way and instant gratification is the key to their heart.
One little boy I know cries if his parents do not take the car he wants them to drive on an outing. To not cause a “scene,” they easily give in. They see him as easily upset and fragile. I saw him as controlling. He was anxious; it’s true because he was running the show at the age of 6 and knew at some level that he wasn’t equipped to handle it. That same anxiety grows and develops over time.
Who’s in Charge -The Adults or the Children?
In an adult-centered household, children see the rewards of growing up and taking on responsibility, and attempting to prove their maturity to get those rewards. In a child-centered household, children are royalty, and parents are the servants. I’ve seen parents plead with their children to let them have some time to themselves, and marital relationships suffer when parents are enslaved to the relentless demands of child masters. In these homes, children often don’t have respect for parents or adult authority and see their own opinions and ideas as equal to adults. Highly prized children and young adults tell me that they never want to grow up -why bother.
As teenagers, highly prized children live in a contingency world where: they must be bribed to do anything, are often surly and disrespectful, may have failing grades despite above average intelligence, have no career plans or grandiose aspirations such as being a rock star or major league athlete, and may be using drugs or alcohol to medicate the bad feelings they can’t deal with.
As teenagers with no emotional need for their parents, they manipulate them for privileges; use them for the room, food, car, and spending money that keeps them supplied with what they want; and do nothing for the family in return. Some parents tell me they are afraid to set limits for their teenagers for fear of how they may retaliate. Because no one said no to them, these teenagers have great difficulty with self-discipline and saying no to themselves. An early study (way back in 2001) by Dan Kinflon discovered 7 attributes of giving too much: and expecting too little. These still hold true today
• Not motivated
• Disorder eating
• Hurried-worried -depressed
• Overindulged and spoiled
These children and young adults, whether they are 6, 24, or 35, just don’t feel good about themselves. They don’t feel as great as their parents think they are or want to be. Suicidal thoughts and fantasies often make life a struggle. When academic problems show up, parents start to express disappointment in the child who: doesn’t read at grade level, can’t cope with striking out at baseball, and gets suspended for hitting and pushing. Unfortunately, without help and left to their own devices, the highly prized child will not develop a better defense organization (i.e., a bigger split between their real needs and feelings and the image they project). They will bury their fears and inadequacies and buy into the false image of perfection. They make up for this by LOOKING GOOD.
How Did They Get This Way?
Highly prized children often have circumstances of their birth that set them up for what follows. Their parents may have had fertility problems, and they are the long-awaited product of expensive in vitro procedures. They may have been the miraculous adopted child after unsuccessful fertility treatment. They may be the only child, or worse, the only child of now-divorced parents who each have no one else to dote on. They may be the only child in a one-parent household where the lines between adult and child have become blurred, and the two-member family functions like roommates or companions.
They may have survived an early crisis—prematurity or another infant malady that made them highly prized. They may be the product of a two-career household with more money than time and are indulged to compensate for their parents’ guilt. Their parents may just want to give them everything they didn’t have growing up. Yet it may also be that none of these circumstances triggered their exalted status. It doesn’t matter why they are over-prized. The approach is similar.
How do we help Parents?
1. In our work together, we help parents take back control of their lives, setting limits, providing discipline, creating and enforcing healthy behaviors. Children and young adults need to feel vulnerable and trust in their parents’ guidance and wisdom. They do better when they feel connected to a world with structure and want approval for their behaviors
2. Setting Boundaries (the new word for discipline) is often the most difficult problem for parents because it may just be necessary to go through a period when the situation worsens before it gets better. Think about when parents choose not to accept behaviors that they have been looking the other way about; not going to school, not leaving one’s room, engaging in high-risk behaviors, bellowing and demanding the world switches, and there is always a point of push back. Think about how you were as a young child when you were told to put away your toys, it’s time to go to bed, or you could not have that toy you just pulled off the shelves in the grocery store. More often than not, you would not accept this outcome, causing a huge ruckus that made your mom or caretaker want to slink around the corner and hide.
3. Likewise, affirming children, teens, and adults and supporting what’s done well is important. Not every act deserves a medal. Teaching them how to affirm themselves and understand the difference between affirmation and direction is key.
Lastly, we know the beauty that families experience by creating a plan (which we call a Change Agreement) so that lines are clear and expectations are achievable. We work hard to help families achieve health and wellness and a pathway for all to thrive.
If you have a loved one, whether they are 6, 18, or 38, who you are worried about. Help is just a phone call away. Our well-trained Mentors are individuals who have struggled with mental health, substances, or other addictions and have come out the other side with a skillset and toolbox that can be imparted to others. Addiction mitigation vis-a-vis peer support is a unique way to fill a void in an individual’s life without the perceived ‘baggage’ of the parents, teachers, or even friends.