When a lawyer argued that a 16-year-old involved in a fatal drunk-driving collision in Texas suffered from “affluenza,” or being so privileged by his rich parents that he wasn’t capable of distinguishing the consequences of bad behavior, many eyebrows were raised.
But it seemingly convinced the judge, who issued a minimal sentence to the teen whose car killed four people. Ethan Couch was ordered to probation and alcohol treatment, but will not go to jail.
So is affluenza a real psychiatric condition, or just the new spoiled?
“It’s a cute idea in the public’s imagination, but there’s no diagnostic criteria that says people have affluenza,” said Thomas Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University.
While it’s not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, both Plante and Arizona State University psychology professor Suniya Luthar say they recognize the behavior. In fact, Suniya posed a question to several teenagers as part of a recent study: “If you were caught at school with vodka for the third time, and the principal decided to report it to the police, how likely would it be that your parents would protest?” Twenty percent said their parents would “probably” or “definitely” protest.
“In the upper middle class, as kids get older, parents become conscious of their kids’ resumes -- and some are terrified of something bad on them,” Luthar said. Some parents, she said, would rather transfer their children to a different school than face sullying a record. “That’s not doing their child any favors. It’s not easy for any of us to be bad cops, but that’s how kids learn the consequences of their actions. If we place a higher value on a pristine school record than on being responsible, we’re asking for trouble.”