Privilege can be a curse, according to Harriet Rossetto, founder of nationally recognized Beit T’Shuvah, a faith-based recovery community in California with 140 beds and an $11 million budget. When Rossetto noticed exponential growth in Beit T’Shuvah’s young adult population, she coined the term “trauma of privilege” to describe the misattunement children experience when they feel pressure to fit into a model, imposed by society and parents, that doesn’t necessarily align with who they are.
While the term trauma can seem overdramatic, implying a serious and sometimes permanent injury, it is intended to describe a condition that can be changed. Rossetto’s goal is to help parents understand the effects of hyper-indulgent, overprotective parenting that fails to promote accountability or responsibility, and teach them how to turn this trend around.
“Parents fear their kids won’t be the best,” Rossetto says. “If their kid doesn’t get into the top college, or the even the best nursery school, they believe the child will be disadvantaged in life. That fear leads parents to do things for their kids that the kids should be doing for themselves.”
This sort of parenting causes children to have certain expectations and a sense of entitlement not tied to their own efforts, while also sending an unconscious message that children are not competent and cannot do anything for themselves. “It’s fear-based parenting, not love-based parenting,” Rossetto says. “If we don’t allow failure, we are threatening the balance. The sense of self you need to operate in the world gets built from trying and failing, accomplishing goals and facing problems.”
“Privilege is a tough word for me,” says Karen*, a Wilmette mother to Mark, whose life came crashing down six years ago. Growing up, Mark had attended private day school. Karen and Mark’s father divorced when Mark was 12 years old, but Karen says she was a very present mom. “Mark knew I would fight tooth-and-nail for him,” she says. “Looking back I realize, instead of letting him fight his own battles, I would intervene.”
Mark’s problems started innocently, betting a can of Coke over who could run the fastest. By college, his gambling escalated to horse races and casinos, until there was always a bet on something. “Later, Mark told me he felt like he didn’t matter unless he had money,” Karen says. “Through gambling, he could become a person of status.”
After graduation, Mark moved to Los Angeles with his girlfriend, and continued to live the high life. Until the day he called his mother to say he needed help.
“I thought he overdrew his bank account or racked up a high credit card bill,” Karen says. Instead, Mark had embezzled money from his employer. His wife left, all his friends dropped him and his employer pressed charges.
Beit T’Shuvah was Mark’s saving grace. He attended Gamblers Anonymous there before and after his eight-month stint in prison. “It was a tough love situation,” says Karen. “While there were things I didn’t agree with, I stopped fighting those battles.”
Today Mark is gambling-free, gainfully employed and paying back his debt. He’s also getting married this year. “The scar will always be there,” his mother says. “He’s a convicted felon. But maybe that’s what it took — to go down this road and meet these people. He’s acknowledged that he’s flawed and realized that it’s not all about money.”
Karen believed trauma and privilege were oxymorons. Now she understands that advantage has its downside. “The more we try to coddle our kids and provide a better life, we can go overboard,” she says. “Kids don’t learn to live life on their own terms. With no coping mechanism, they become very insecure with their mistakes.”
Doug Rosen’s parents dropped him off at Beit T’Shuvah as a spoiled, drug-addicted 27-year-old. Eleven years later, he is now the Director of Partners in Prevention at Beit T’Shuvah. Rosen believes the “Trauma of Privilege” stems from our innate, animalistic desire to survive. Those in the middle class no longer have to worry about securing a roof over their head. Instead, they fill that void by achieving — or overachieving. But determining what will provide the most material success and make you happy can be a daunting task.
Rosen gives speeches to middle schoolers who are worried about getting good grades. Kids believe their entire lifetime of happiness is tied to the grades they receive now. This can lead to perfectionism, anxiety and depression.
“We’re a quick-fix society,” says Rosen. “If you have a headache, take a pill. We don’t want to deal with any discomfort. Parents don’t want to see their kids struggle.” Rosen warns that if you give in to the temper tantrums of your 6-year-old, the tantrums only get uglier as the child grows.
He also advises that children should not enjoy all the comforts of success, like new cars and credit cards, at 16 years old. Young adults should have the opportunity to grow, and to actively participate in that growth and achievement. Even a graduate who gets a great job out of college probably won’t be able to keep up with the lifestyle they grew accustomed to when their parents were footing the bill.
Beth Fishman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with the Jewish Center for Addiction in Skokie, says privilege refers to having enough time and resources to focus strongly on your children. She believes it’s often a family disease system, where parents have been traumatized in the same way. “While trauma has a charge around it, it also has a positive element, meaning that it is eminently changeable,” Fishman says. “The fix is good, solid parenting practice.”
Children should earn their own money and pay for their own activities. There should be clear boundaries and family expectations for behavior. “When children mess up, as they will, they need to be held accountable,” says Fishman. “Children have to build their own sense of self-efficacy to know that they can be effective in their lives.” That doesn’t mean it should be without parental support. Parents can listen and help problem-solve, but doing everything for their children isn’t a good idea.
Unfortunately, habits and behaviors can become entrenched, especially in a community. It’s nearly impossible for one family to succeed at this on their own. We have to help each other. “A culture of judgment and lack of acceptance is very damaging to our children,” says Fishman. “While unintentionally teaching to judge others, we ultimately judge ourselves.”
Instead, Fishman recommends focusing on making the world a better place. Make an effort to expose your family to other cultures and connect with people whose lifestyles differ from your own. Try traveling, not as a tourist, but to gain one-on-one personal experience with people who are different from you. Or consider involving your child in a program like Seeds of Peace, which gives teenagers opportunities to dialogue with others across conflict lines and discover ways to work for positive change.
* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the family’s privacy.