Health warning: affluenza

2007-12-17 00:00

A 14-year-old sits in my psychology practice with grand ideas about becoming a millionaire by the time he is 30. He thinks his father is a “loser” because he drives an ordinary car. His teachers are “stupid” and school is a “waste of time”.

Then there is the nine-year-old girl whose mother works around the clock to keep her daughter happy and content. Not only is the child unhappy and not content, her demands just keep increasing.

The affliction? Affluenza, also known as “luxury fever’’, a creeping social disease of over-consumption, commercialism and rampant materialism. And it’s happening in South Africa along with everywhere else in the world.

Affluenza is caused by parents’ best intentions. We want our children to be stimulated, happy, fulfilled, enriched and to fit in with their peer group. Our children have not been slow to take up our offer. Many are addicted to the fashion of the moment and the fad of the day.

We’ve allowed them to believe privileges are rights. We’ve consented to schlep more, stress more, pay more in order to meet ever-increasing expectations. Many of us are not even aware we’re living with a modern-day epidemic, a psychological plague. We’ve bought into it just like we’ve bought the latest flat-screen TV. We want our children to have everything of the best, but sometimes we mis-identify what “everything of the best” really means. As a result we pursue the wrong things — in the case of our children, toys, treats, electronics, clothes and lots more.

What are the symptoms? Stress, debt, waste, overwork, feelings of deprivation, envy and depression. Affluenza is having a devastating impact on our families, our communities and the environment. We have more money but less time, bigger homes but less space, and our quality of life seems to be deteriorating. The effects can be life-long and, while not in itself life-threatening, affluenza has the power to cause major unhappiness and imbalance.

Families may experience a type of “hostile attachment”, where relationships are filled with hostility and resentment. Children will sense that they are causing their parents distress (which of course they are) and they either cling to their parents or make more demands as a way of trying to create closeness again. But of course it doesn’t work, because the more the child demands, the more resentful the parent becomes and the more the child will demand in turn … And so the cycle of hostility begins. This is when parents don’t like to be with their children because it feels so exhausting. The attachment or interaction has become one of entitlement and enslavement.

The cure lies in breaking the addiction to consumption. But how?

Many of the solutions lie in behaviour that is the exact opposite of what we have come to believe is good parenting. We need to behave like adults, not siblings, and to learn to deal positively and effectively with our children’s negative feelings and behaviours. Of course we are willing to make major sacrifices so that our children can be happy and fulfilled. Let’s make sure that’s what we really are doing, rather than buying into a negative cycle of never-ending demands, guilt and over-reaction. We must also end the poor example we may be setting for our children. If we believe who we are is less important than what we have, how do we expect them to believe otherwise?

The anti-affluenza vaccine involves turning our notion of consumption on its head. We need to build more effective filters against pressures to consume. Many companies view children as “cash crops to be harvested”, says Alex Molner, author of Giving Kids the Business.

The “nag factor” is a key consideration in today’s marketing plans, adds Juliet Schor in Born to Buy.

It seems so much easier to outsource children’s difficult behaviours and feelings and to blame the school, blame the teacher, blame the peer group or even put children on to a cocktail of drugs. Maybe that is why I have been asked to assess the 14-year-old for an attention deficit disorder and the nine-year-old for depression, even thought the affliction is likely to be affluenza.

12 tips to treat affluenza

• Don’t externalise issues. Don’t blame the “naughty” table when your son bumps into it by mistake. Your son actually made an error. Trust that he will be able to experience and eventually get over his hurt. Support your child’s resilience rather than his vulnerabilities.

• Set appropriate boundaries early. Be aware of when you are feeling manipulated and set limits immediately. Allow your children to have all their feelings (including the difficult feelings), but set limits to the inappropriate acting out of these.

• Don’t give in to your children’s demands resentfully. Either say “yes” or “no”, but make sure that the words you use reflect the feelings you have. Don’t say “yes” when you actually don’t feel that way. If you offer the lift to the party, do it happily or not at all. Hostile giving often leads to a hostile attachment. Clear communication is the goal.

• Do not pursue your aim to raise happy children at all costs. Your child’s happiness cannot be at the expense of family harmony, financial stability, and marital unity. We need to have boundaries and rules that are age-appropriate, predictable and consistent in order to raise children who will be able to grow up as responsible members of society.

• Avoid shopping as a leisure activity and don’t shop for comfort. If you are feeling blue, acknowledge these feelings and deal with them in healthy ways. Retail therapy usually leads to debt, not to happier lives. Exercise is an excellent way to release endorphins to the brain and acts as a natural anti-depressant. Or use the three bs — a book, a board game or a ball — instead.

• Before you buy, ask yourself: Do we need it? Can it be borrowed? Is there anything we own that can be used instead? How many hours will I have to work to pay for it? Where will I store it? Do I want to dust, dry-clean or maintain it? Does it contribute to waste in our home?

Make a space for thinking before consuming and teach your children to do the same.

• Teach your children about a budget. When they are old enough, give them pocket money and teach them the value of saving. Give them the thinking space to decide what is worth buying and what isn’t. Give them three tins: one for savings, one for charity and one for spending.

• Forget the Joneses. Don’t try to live up to other people’s standards. Develop an internal locus of control rather than an external one. Don’t let your happiness be determined by what others have or do.

• Develop a critical ear and eye to advertisements. Discuss the aims of advertising with your children. Dispel the myth that if you have the party dress, the party will come.

• Access your capacity to choose. Neither you nor your children are empty vessels. You can choose whether to go along with what others are expecting.

• Don’t outsource. Nobody is going to be able to teach your children good values. Remember that “values are caught not taught”.

• If over-consumption is about taking too much, then look for opportunities for your children to give rather than to take. Let them make a card for granny, rather than expect a gift when she arrives.

• Sheryl Cohen is a psychologist and mother of four. She has produced a range of parenting CDs.

• This article appears in the November/December edition of Your Child magazine.

• For more information, contact the editor, Kate Sidley, at

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