The news is rife with the term “Affluenza,” which was recently used as a defense for a 16-year-old Texas teen* accused of killing 4 people in a drunk driving case. Instead of jail time, he was sentenced to 10 years of probation, presenting an interesting perspective on what can happen when parents don’t set boundaries, create limits, or teach accountability. For those who don’t know, the term “Affluenza” is a term coined by John de Graaf, environmental scientist David Wann and economist Thomas H. Naylor, authors of the book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic.
When speaking to John Lieberman, Director of Operations about this case, he said:
“This is a sad and horrible situation. No amount of jail time or punishment will heal the wounds or bring back the dead. The simple fact here is this: Every parent can learn from this situation. This young man was showing signs and symptoms of drug and alcohol abuse prior to the accident. Early intervention is the most important and effective way to deal with addiction, drug abuse and “affluenza.” Parents, please take actions to stand between your children and the actions that may destroy their lives and the lives of others.
One of the most important standards of responsible treatment is accountability. Adolescents who act out may have been abused, neglected or spoiled. The issue at hand is not weather this young man should get treatment. The issue is if this recent light sentence fits the crime. I believe it is a mistake for any licensed mental health professional to make up a diagnosis; Affluenza is not a recognized diagnosis. The sad thing is that the symptoms this teen was exhibiting do relate to a defined diagnosis.”
The 16-year-old’s blood alcohol levels were three times the legal adult limit and the alcohol he’d consumed that fateful day had been purloined illegally. The public outrage stems from his lack of accountability and lack of his family’s accountability. According to Mary Greshem, an Atlanta psychologist, “The diagnosis for youths in such situations would be impulse control problems, and impulse control problems are seen across all socioeconomic levels in families where limits aren’t set.”
Soniya Luther, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University says, “There are ways in a society that we collectively shape the behavior of our kids.” For example, if parents aren’t setting boundaries for themselves and regulating their own behavior, their kids won’t either. If a parent persistently fights consequences of their negative actions, they are sending negative messages to their children about taking responsibility. The reality is, a child who never faces consequences for their actions will have increasingly larger and larger problems to deal with. A therapist once said to me, “Little people, little problems; big people, big problems,” an apropos sentiment for this situation. Ignoring negative early childhood behaviors frames the perception of a consequence-free future, where the issues will be far greater than, “No, you can’t have an extra cookie.” Soniya Luther says, “It really speaks to the importance of attending to our children’s behavior early on. In all cases, it is our duty (sic) to step in and do the right thing. It’s not just loving our kids but putting the appropriate limits on their behavior.”
*We’ve chosen to eliminate the teen’s proper name due to his age, despite its release in the media.