Parental Protection: Beautiful, Or Misguided?

I am proud to live in a community that supports its special needs families. As a psychiatrist, I think it very important for the school system and citizens to rally around families who need support. My children attend public school at special needs campuses, a wonderful opportunity to practice acceptance and compassion. Many of the parents, warriors for their children’s safety and educational needs, are my neighbors and friends. I have learned up close, with none of the professional distance afforded by my doctor role, how difficult their fight can be.

Sunday afternoon, my family and I attended a birthday party for a twenty-year-old with a host of medical and mental health disabilities. She suffered perinatal brain damage, leaving her with a severe seizure disorder, language and learning deficits, and the need for chronic care. Her prized birthday gifts were a collection of Barney videos. I know first hand from conversations with her mother that sometimes the parent of a special needs child has to fight within the system. Last year, the parents decided to pull her out of high school, citing the benefits no longer outweighed the risks. Safety is tenuous in a special needs classroom much of the time.

Home from the party later, I opened up a news story on the “affluenza” case. A fan asked me my thoughts on the subject a few days ago. “Affluenza” is a term popping up everywhere I look; it was coined by a forensic psychologist to name a sort of sickness created when protective affluent parents bail a child out of trouble repeatedly and the kid never learns right from wrong. The word has been splashed all over news pages after an irresponsible, affluent teen received a light sentence for driving drunk and tragically ending innocent lives. The expert testified that the boy lacked a sense of accountability because his parents bailed him out when he made mistakes. The public outcry has many arguing the boy’s parents were misguided when they protected their son and they inadvertently created a monster.

The sort of parenting that led to the recent public tragedy is a real phenomenon is our culture. As a professional, I have met kids with “affluenza.” Parents bring teens and young adults for assessment of bad behavior, and commonly those parents have aided the development of the bad behavior by bailing their child out of trouble repeatedly. The parents argue with teachers to change failing grades, they pay fines and cover-up mischief, and eventually they hire powerful attorneys to craft elaborate defense strategies. By the time I evaluate the families, the damage has already been done.

I don’t believe “affluenza” is a legitimate legal defense, not according to the laws in my state pertaining to mental illness and criminal responsibility, but it is a serious social problem parents and professionals need to address. It is not unlike sociocultural problems we see in disadvantaged families; affluence does not protect kids from psychological problems, it just shapes them differently.

In truth, I don’t think I have ever treated a family (in any income bracket) that set out to disable a child with poor parenting decisions. Perhaps if parents did harm children purposely, they wouldn’t come seeking professional help. Instead, I imagine affluenza parents feel like champions, protecting beloved children from unjust consequences, like my friend with her twenty-year-old daughter felt when she pulled her out of school. I wonder if the so-called affluenza parents ever thought their protections were mistaken. Or did they experience themselves like the warrior moms and dads who assemble resources and do whatever it takes to ensure vulnerable children are kept safe?

Dr. Deuter is a psychiatrist who specializes in the care of emerging adults.

Posted on February 10, 2014 .