December 13th, 2013
10:48 AM ET

'Affluenza': Is it Real?

Attorneys for Texas teen Ethan Couch claimed that his "affluenza" meant he was blameless for driving drunk and causing a crash that left four people dead in June.

Simply put, Couch, 16, claims that his condition stemmed from having wealthy, privileged parents who never set limits for him, CNN's Randi Kaye reports.

Judge Jean Boyd sentenced him Tuesday to 10 years of probation but no jail time, saying she would work to find him a long-term treatment facility.

Criminal Defense Attorney Brian Wice weighed in on "New Day" Friday and said he actually agrees with the punishment.

"This is not the adult criminal justice system. This is the juvenile system where the Texas legislature has mandated that rule one in the playbook is what is in the child's best interest. And that's rehabilitation."

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But we ask: Is "affluenza" real? Or is it a way for coddled children and adolescents to evade consequences for their actions?

Not surprisingly, "affluenza" does not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, the "psychiatric Bible."

But the term highlights the issue of parents, particularly upper-middle-class ones, who not only refuse to discipline their children but may protest the efforts of others - school officials, law enforcement and the courts - who attempt to do so, said Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University.

"There are families where very, very few limits are set at a time when they should be," she said. By age 16, she noted, it's too late: "The horse is out of the barn."

The diagnosis for youths in such situations would be impulse control problems, said Atlanta psychologist Mary Gresham - and impulse control problems are seen across all socioeconomic levels in families where limits aren't set.

"We don't know if the rates of poor limit-setting are higher in affluent families or not," Gresham said, noting that there has not been a lot of research.

Luthar says she has studied wealthier families, however, and "we've found the level of serious adjustment problems ranging from depression, anxiety, delinquency, substance abuse higher among kids of upper-middle-class families."

She says in one of her studies, her team gave youths several different scenarios, ranging from minor to serious infractions - such as being caught for the third time with vodka at school or plagiarizing on a test - and asked them how likely their parents would be to protest any punishment for them.

"There was definitely a subgroup of kids that said, 'My parents would object (to punishment from school officials),' " she said.

However, she points out that this is not the norm. "It's a small group (of parents) but very vocal, aggressive, entitled. ... There is definitely a small subgroup that is powerful and way off the charts."

"I wouldn't say there's worse parenting in affluent families and fewer limits set," Gresham said. "That's not true."

But in wealthy families, Gresham said, "kids without limits have a lot more resources to use for their impulsive behavior. They have a lot more money and a lot more access to powerful cars that are fast; to drugs and alcohol, because those things cost money. So the extra resources that you have to live out your impulse control problems really create a problem."

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  1. John

    For every black/Hispanic family out there I apolize on behalf of whites. There is a double standard. White kids should be rehabilitated and black children should be executed. White children suffer from affluenza, but blacks don't suffer from gangs, drugs, or anything else.

    Rewarding the rich and arrogant for their crimes... stop me if you've heard this one before.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Reply
  2. Excuses Excuses Excuses

    Affluenza example fro the 1960's. Remember the "Chappaquiddick Incident"

    Ted Kennedy The Senator of Sleaze who was a drunk sexual bully and left a young woman to die.

    Senator Edward 'Ted' Kennedy stood for sleaze. Bloated and drunken, he used his standing in the Kennedy clan to

    As always, Ted used the family name to save his neck. In any other state but Massachusetts, the Kennedys' home turf, and with any other name, he would have been charged with homicide. Instead, he escaped with a slap on the wrist: a two-year suspended sentence and the loss of his driving licence for a year. He had been allowed to plead guilty to no more than the charge of leaving the scene of an accident.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Reply

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