The trauma of privilege: What is happening to our children

I have been in the center of the swirl of awareness about the unintended consequences of affluence and privilege on our children. I meet these youngsters and their families when crisis penetrates the denial system and they arrive at Beit T’Shuvah, the recovery community I founded 30 years ago. I have listened to their baffled, bewildered parents who “gave them everything” only to have it thrown in their faces. I coined the family dynamic: “I hate you; send money.”  At Beit T’Shuvah, we have been essentially “re-parenting” these children of all ages, allowing them to experience “all the disadvantages of success,” in the words of Larry Ellison.  

A recent study by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds a direct correlation between parents who overvalue their children and children who are narcissistic.  Researchers found that while parental warmth was associated with high self-esteem in kids, that parental over-evaluation was not. Or as Madeline Levine put it: “Praise is not warmth pumped in; self-esteem is not self-efficacy.”  I have heard from many recovering addicts that when they feel undeserving, praise exacerbates their self-loathing and sense of fraudulence.

I have read most of the developing literature on the effects of over-parenting, helicoptering, indulging our offspring, resulting in entitled, depressed, addicted, and most recently narcissistic kids. Their despair manifests in a wide range of self-destructive behaviors: drugs, alcohol, food (stuffing or starving), self-mutilation (cutting, piercing), internet addictions to gaming, chatting, and pornography.  The more passive expressions of hopelessness and lack of purpose are the “failures to launch” – those who never leave or return to the “nest,” sleeping away the days, refusing to grow up.

These are not just symptoms of narcissism. After more than thirty years of observation, I argue that these children have been traumatized. They suffer from what I call The Trauma of Privilege.

The benefit of viewing this condition through the trauma lens rather than the personality disorder lens is that the latter is static, the former infinitely reparable.  The label narcissistic personality brands you for life; trauma views adaptive behavior as a learned way of being that can be unlearned.  The wounded, fractured self can be repaired in a community that offers emotional, physical, and spiritual healing through exposure to multiple emotionally corrective experiences for privileged families trapped in the cycle of Either/Or-ness, fear of inadequacy, and the never-ending pursuit of perfection.

Seen through the trauma lens, these narcissistic characteristics are the result of primary attachment disorder and parental mis-attunement.  The parents need to produce a “perfect” child, wherein the child’s successes are a reflection of the parents’ worth.  This creates in the child a sense of being a commodity – “valuable but not valued.”  They alternate between grandiosity and self-loathing or depression, unable to integrate self and self image.  They life in a paradigm of Either/Or: I am either number One or a total loser.  Or as they say in recovery circles, hot shit or piece of shit.  Their “self” is fragmented, split, at war.  They keep asking themselves the wrong question: which one is the real me?

Healing the fractured self begins with the answer: “They are both the real me.”  This leap from Either/Or to Both/And begins to repair the trauma of Either/Or parenting.  Through this lens, parents over-value and/or overpraise their children because they, too, are fractured.  Their fears, anxieties, and insecurities about themselves render them incapable of reflecting wholeness back to their child.  Parents who have zero tolerance for their child’s imperfections, who can’t tolerate their child’s sadness, rage, fears, unhappiness, who can’t be present and non-judgmental with their child’s inconsistent and contradictory states of being, who can only mirror the praiseworthy aspects of the child, create narcissism – the quintessential split.

This is why we treat this condition as a trauma,that can be repaired. We teach them how to fail forward, to accept their defects and imperfections, to live within limits, accept the discomfort of not getting what they want, to tolerate rejection and disappointment, and to take right action no matter what they feel.  We help them to “recover their passion and discover their purpose.”  Their challenge is learning how to integrate their opposing and contradictory selves, a necessary prelude to the development of integrity.  After a considerable amount of time and attention, many of them come to life.  They launch.  These traumatized young men and women begin to take responsibility for both their successes and failures.  Their parents learn how to say no and stop defining themselves by their children’s successes or failures.

It is not only children of privilege who are failing, it is their parents. Those fighting so hard to keep them from harm are causing the most damage. Parenting needs a wake up call, and children must be allowed to fail before they forget how to value true success and become victims of the trauma of privilege.