Affluenza’ teen: Seven ways you can prevent this parenting tragedy from happening at home
Ethan Crouch is back in the news.
In 2013, the Texas teenager killed four people and seriously injured two while drunk driving. On top of this tragedy, he was then treated leniently by the court because he was described as having “affluenza,” meaning that being raised indulgently by wealthy parents, he was not responsible for his actions. There was a media uproar by people angered by both the young man’s actions and by the lack of appropriately severe consequences for the devastation he created.
Now, in a bizarre development, Ethan and his mother have disappeared after he failed to report to his probation officer. The juvenile-justice equivalent of an arrest warrant has been issued for him.
If you are a parent, you are probably somewhat dismayed and frustrated by the levels of dysfunction that appear to exist in the young man and in his family. And you are most likely also concerned about your own kids, and how to inoculate them from whatever emotional conditions Ethan is truly experiencing.
I cannot diagnose Ethan’s psychological state, not having interviewed him for a clinical evaluation. But the attitudes and behaviors that are ascribed to him in the media loosely fit patterns of a condition called entitlement, which is an aspect of a narcissistic personality disorder. In my new book “The Entitlement Cure,” I define entitlement as two attitudes: (1) denying responsibility for one’s choices, and (2) demanding special treatment. The combination is destructive. The first one almost guarantees life and career failures, and the second one, relational shipwrecks.
All of us parents want healthy and successful kids. We don’t want a bad ending as is happening so far in the Crouch family. So what can we do today, to keep even a trace of this sort of tragedy from occurring in the four walls of our homes? Here are some parenting tips that will go a long way in protecting your child from contracting the disease of entitlement.
- Combine love and limits. Research says that the two most important factors in raising healthy children are warmth (positive nurturance) and structure (boundaries and consequences). Children need to know they are loved unconditionally and that their parents are engaged emotionally with them. This gives them the security, safety and confidence they need to begin to face life. At the same time, clear house rules and age-appropriate consequences provide a predictable structure and path for life, helping them to focus, stay on task, curb their impulses and develop a work ethic. When parents nurture but neglect structure, the child can develop a sense of entitlement, translated as “I can do what I feel like when I feel like it”, which is a recipe for disaster.
- Praise that which requires effort. Children need praise, which fills them up inside, helps their self image and fuels more positive behavior. But praise those behaviors which require some work and which show character development. For example:
- I saw how kind you were to your brother today
- You worked hard on your homework, even when you wanted to play
- I’m proud of how you volunteered to help set the table
- You admitted you were wrong in the fight, and that showed me that you are a really honest person
Conversely, avoid praising external attributed or natural giftedness, which the child didn’t do anything to have. For example:
- You are so good looking!
- Your smile is so charming
- You don’t have to work at math, you are naturally great at it
- You are a fantastic gymnast (unless you add: “and you practice diligently every day”)
This second sort of empty praise can cause a psychological conflict in the child, which is that the “real me” is starved and the “grandiose me” is fed. At a deep level, the child feels only valued for what isn’t real, which then creates not only entitlement, but a sense of being a fraud. Stick to affirming what is substantive in your child.
- Distinguish between “special” and “unique.” “Special” can be a double-edged word, and needs to be used carefully with our kids. While our children are indeed special to us, the meaning can blur into “therefore I deserve special treatment”, which moves your boy or girl into prince-or-princess territory, which you definitely don’t want. The word “unique” is better, as it helps your kid see that there is no one like her, but you don’t have the shadings of entitlement underneath it. Statements such as “Your combination of humor and seriousness is one-of-a-kind” or “I love how no other kid I know can study hard and play hard like you do” are helpful and create more security in your child.
- Be “for”, but don’t collude with your child. While we need to want what is best for our child (the “for” stance), we may have to also stand against him when he is at fault. Kids do not flourish when we defend them when they are wrong, which is what collusion is. For example:
- Consider that his teacher may be right about his negative behavior
- Be open to the coach saying that he needs to focus more and stop screwing around
- Listen to other parents when they say he is disruptive in their homes
- Pay attention to what the police say when they bring him home from a party
The attitude of “my kid, right or wrong” simply leads straight to the attitude of “I don’t have to take responsibility for my actions.” You are always your child’s advocate, but an advocate for growth and responsibility, not escaping life.
- Distinguish between “acceptance” and “approval.” This is a huge area for parents. We all know the damage that can be caused by acceptance based on performance and conditions. It’s horrible. For a child to feel accepted only when she behaves in a desired way can cause psychological and relational issues, such as depression, anxiety and negative relationships. Kids desperately need to know that they are acceptable to you, even when they fail, give up and disappoint you.
However, this is very different from approval. While acceptance is about the person, approval is about the behavior. It is not acceptable, for example, to:
- Hurt your sibling
- Neglect your homework
- Refuse your chores
- Be disrespectful of others
- Break curfew
- Drink and take substances
- We parents must disapprove, so our kids will know right from wrong. It is where they learn how to behave in society. Be the front line of what is approved and what is not approved. Don’t wait for a teacher, an employer or your child’s future spouse to have to show her. Always accept who your kid is, and show her what is approved and what is disapproved, at the same time.
- Have them develop empathy. One of the most important parenting tasks is helping our kids learn to feel empathy for others. Empathy is the ability to see how we affect others’ feelings, both positive and negative. When your child feels a sense of remorse for being unkind to another, you are doing a great job!
Entitled children have a deficit in empathy, meaning that they don’t feel how much they hurt others by their behavior. When they hit another kid and get caught, they are more concerned about getting caught than about how they made the other child feel.
Dr. John Townsend is the New York Times bestselling author of “Boundaries” and the newly released, “The Entitlement Cure: Finding Success In Doing Hard Things the Right Way” (Zondervan, October 2015).