The Trauma of a Privileged Youth

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Trauma is not a term immediately associated with privileged individuals. Trauma, and associated trauma disorders such as PTSD, are usually seen as reactions to life-threatening traumatic events such as accidents, natural disasters, war, and sexual or physical violence. However, chronic trauma can be caused by long term exposure to emotional abuse, neglect, or abandonment, all of which can sometimes be found in wealthy families.

We have long understood that the risk of depression is greater among those in more affluent Western countries. A study conducted on affluent youth in America demonstrated that they exhibited higher rates of SUD, anxiety, stress, and depression than their less affluent peers.[1]

This article explores the relationship between trauma and privileged youth that results from  a unique combination of stressors.

High Pressure Environments

In a culture of privilege, parenting can become focused on success and failure. In America, we have seen this exacerbated by competition among parents about their own accomplishments and those of their children. Increasingly, parents have become overprotective, demanding, and indulgent while growing more critical of their children’s achievements and characteristics deemed unworthy, such as insecurity, fear, or sadness.

This environment is driven by stress and the pressure to achieve. Children of privilege are often pushed to excel both academically and in extra-curricular activities such as sports or the arts.[2]

Children’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth are significantly impacted as they strive to reach the impossibly high standards and goals set for them by their parents.

This type of fear-driven parenting is understood to disrupt a child’s natural healthy attachment process. Instead of developing into autonomous, independent, and confident individuals, they are more at risk for developing narcissism, codependence, and an overall lack of confidence, which can translate into incompetence as adults.[3]

Neglect and Abandonment

Children from affluent families are more likely to be left at home for extended periods of time in comparison to their counterparts. The reasons for this are two-fold: [4]

  1. Parents from wealthy families are more likely to overestimate a child’s level of self-sufficiency, resilience and responsibility when left to fend for themselves.
  2. Parents are often high earners due to demanding jobs, or senior level positions, which require significant time away from the house.

The result is that routine activities such as school drop off, pick-ups, activities, and sharing meals are greatly diminished. These moments are crucial for parent-child bonding and healthy attachment bonds to form.

These children are additionally more likely to be placed under the care of nannies or housekeepers. Even if the care is excellent and emotional and physical needs are met, children will lose the opportunity to bond fully with their primary caregiver and are likely to grow up feeling unloved or unwanted by their parents.

These children are likely to experience intense feelings of neglect and physical and emotional abandonment. 

Boarding School Syndrome

Boarding schools are widely an English phenomenon, but their prevalence and popularity have spread across the Western world in recent years. The aforementioned feelings of abandonment are further compounded by a child’s being sent away to school, and there is a wealth of research on the psychological issues this can cause.

Wealthy families often assume that sending their children to an elite boarding school is the best decision for both a child’s education and social development. There is often an assumption that those who attend these schools are at an advantage and will form strong networks of influence with peers, have greater opportunities, and go on to find gainful employment and a good income.

However, research has demonstrated that ex-boarders frequently display difficulties in relationships and parenting, workaholic traits, mental health issues, and substance abuse.[5]

What’s more, these individuals are less likely to acknowledge their issues or seek help as they exhibit traits of exaggerated outward confidence and competence.

The unique environment in which these youths grow up establishes some of the following tendencies:[6]

  • An “acceptance” of their isolation or loneliness
  • A fixed perception of their gender and gender role, which makes forming romantic relationships difficult
  • An overall distrust of others due to feeling abandoned
  • A tendency to self-soothe, even if the coping mechanisms are detrimental to their wellbeing, rather than seek professional help
  • A lack of inner confidence but an exaggerated outward display

Conclusion

It is vital that we understand that no two people’s experiences of trauma are identical. Two individuals in the same situation will respond differently and be impacted in completely different ways. One person may be affected briefly then fully recover and return to homeostasis, while the other may be unable to shake off the traumatic experience and develop long term chronic physiological and psychological difficulties.

Whether a person comes from an impoverished or privileged background, we must take their trauma and its associated effects seriously while doing our utmost to help them heal.

If you are concerned about any issues discussed in this blog, please contact Heather R. Hayes & Associates.  Call 800-335-0316 or email info@heatherhayes.com today.


Sources:

[1] Luthar SS, D’Avanzo K. Contextual factors in substance use: a study of suburban and inner-city adolescents. Dev Psychopathol. 1999;11(4):845-867. doi:10.1017/s0954579499002357.

[2] Luthar, Suniya S. “The culture of affluence: psychological costs of material wealth.” Child development vol. 74,6 (2003): 1581-93. doi:10.1046/j.1467-8624.2003.00625.x. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

[3] Luthar, Suniya S., and Shawn J. Latendresse. “Children of the Affluent”. Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol 14, no. 1, 2005, pp. 49-53. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00333.x. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

[4] Hochschild AR. The time bind: When work becomes home and home becomes work. New York: Metropolitan Books; 1997.

[5] “Normalised Neglect & Privileged Abandonment an Interview with Nick Duffel”. Wimbledonguild.Co.Uk, 2021, https://www.wimbledonguild.co.uk/article/57/normalised-neglect-&-privileged-abandonment-an-interview-with-nick-duffel-.

[6] Schaverien, Joy. “Boarding School: The Trauma of the ‘Privileged’ Child”. Citeseerx.Ist.Psu.Edu, 2004, https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.632.3914&rep=rep1&type=pdf.

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