By Ron Lieber
January 9, 2015
When Thomas Gilbert Jr. was arrested on Monday and charged with killing his wealthy father with a gunshot to the head, the rubbernecking and tut-tutting began almost immediately.
The pair had argued about financial issues in the past, according to police. Tabloid reports suggested that there had been a disagreement over the 30-year-old’s allowance before he apparently pulled the trigger.
So Twitter responded as Twitter does. He was a “trust fund kid.” The “most spoiled brat.” The whole affair was “morbidly disgusting.”
But at the same time, parents all over my own social media feeds and in out-loud discussions throughout the week were having a more searching conversation. How does it come to pass that a 30-year-old Princeton graduate still gets pocket money from his parents? What, if anything, went wrong in the way his parents raised him?
And, is there something about the environment that his mother and hedge-fund-running father raised him in that may have itself been damaging?
We still don’t know very much about this one stranger and his mental health. Nor are we likely to ever get a full picture of his family, its values or the relationship between the father and the son.
But in the last 15 years or so, academics have spent an increasing amount of time studying the affluent and what can ail them, and there is an emerging consensus that their children often have higher rates of depression and anxiety and elevated levels of substance abuse and certain delinquent behaviors.
The questions that these scholars are now turning to revolve around precisely why these bad things happen and how to make them stop.
Before you roll your eyes and mime the playing of violins, let us dispense with the nasty term “rich people problems.” The well-off are human, too, and if some of their children are hurting, it’s indecent to mock or ignore them. And studying and caring about troubled teenagers in the suburbs or private schools does not and should not preclude devoting a disproportionate amount of attention and public resources toward people who have much less.
In fact, it was the study of poverty that led a psychologist named Suniya Luthar, now a professor at Arizona State University, to some of the first findings in this area in the late 1990s. Fully expecting to find more troubling trends among children in lower-income families, she used data from a more affluent group as a comparison.
|Thomas Gilbert Jr. was arrested on January 5, and charged in the|
shooting death of his father, Thomas Gilbert.
JEFFERSON SIEGEL / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
What she found in a 1999 study and several more since, however, was a surprise. Using a variety of data that included families with median household incomes of about $150,000, she found that the adolescents in higher-income families had higher rates of substance abuse of all kinds than those in lower-income ones. This makes a certain amount of sense, since they can afford the drugs, the vehicles to go buy them and the fake IDs that help with the procurement of Stoli and Jägermeister.
But there was more. The more affluent suburban youth stole from their parents more often than city youth with less money and were more likely to experience clinically significant levels of depression, anxiety and physical ailments that seemed to stem from those mental conditions. These things began emerging as early as seventh grade.
Were these results attributable to parenting? If a single parent or both parents work (or have faith in the safe suburban neighborhoods), then their children are left to their own devices after school. Or maybe the number of hours parents needed to spend working to make above-average amounts and maintain a nice life in an upper-middle-class community was the problem. Or it could have been pressure from the parents to achieve levels of success similar to their own that was causing more than a few adolescents to buckle.
Ms. Luthar said that she understood how hard it could be as a parent to resist pressuring children. After all, many such parents enjoy their fulfilling, prestigious jobs and have a wide network of friends from their top-tier educational institutions. Most of them desperately want the same things for their own children, and why wouldn’t they? “This is the trap we can fall into,” she said.
But it was also possible that there was something about the affluent communities themselves that was contributing to the troubles seen in many children who lived there. In 2012, Terese J. Lund and Eric Dearing published a study that suggested that the environment mattered an awful lot too.
What they found was that middle-class children who lived in middle-class neighborhoods had less depression and anxiety and fewer incidences of delinquency than middle-class children who lived in more affluent neighborhoods. The surroundings seemed to matter.
Still, even if the community is the trigger, that doesn’t mean parents don’t also have influence. “It might be because of something that happens in families,” said Mr. Dearing, an associate professor at Boston College. “They make social comparisons and then put exceptional pressure on adolescents.”
Mr. Dearing allows for the possibility that the data showed what they showed because people in affluent communities were more tuned into mental health issues and thus more likely to report them to researchers. Still, he said, that didn’t mean they were exaggerating their hurt; it just meant that health professionals also ought to help lower-income people recognize symptoms of depression and anxiety and find ways to treat them.
Given that the field of study is relatively new, there is still much that the scholars do not know. There is not a lot of great long-term data to show what happens to most affluent children by the time they are Thomas Gilbert Jr.’s age, for instance. (Entities with funding aren’t exactly lining up to pay for extensive studies of rich kids.) Most of the studies have been mostly about white people.
And, it isn’t completely clear how best to support parents — mothers especially, who still often have disproportionate influence — in their efforts to reduce the outsize incidence of the troubles that have bedeviled affluent adolescent youngsters so far.
Still, Ms. Luthar says she is reasonably sure about what parents should avoid.
“Our research consistently found if there is one thing related to problems of all kinds, it is being highly criticized by your parents,” she said. “It is one of the most powerful risk factors.”
Given the emerging research about the importance of ecology, the information we do have suggests you’ll want to pick your community carefully and conduct a thorough values audit before you move in. Once you get there, try hard to remember that you have not entered a race or a contest. Instead, you’ve begun a long family journey whose endpoint is supposed to be happiness and fulfilling work and relationships.
Finally, be aware of what the data shows. It doesn’t mean that children in wealthier families are worse off altogether; far from it. But they are at their own sort of risk.
“The most important thing,” Ms. Luthar said, “is to keep ourselves and our children from getting swept up in the movement towards more being better and the idea that I can and therefore I must.”