An invitation to `The high risk of affluence on youth"

By Cindy Goodwin

Island Forum

One of the most powerful and beautiful qualities of Mercer Island as a community is the value and love parents have for their children. It's clear that parents and other members of the community want children and youth to be successful.

As wonderful as this is, many parents have expressed a concern that the life they have chosen to provide for their children might have a negative side. Many parents have a sense that their children feel pressure that they had not intended and that this type of pressure was absent from their own childhood.

This is a concern that is voiced to us at Youth and Family Services on a regular basis and one that we think is important to address on an individual and community-wide level. At 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30, Dr. Suniya Luthar from Columbia University will be speak about her research with youth and families in affluent communities.

Luthar began her research career looking at lower income youth and the incidence of drug and alcohol use and other indicators of personal distress. She used youth from families in an upper economic income community as a control group. What she found were higher levels of substance use and emotional distress among youth from more affluent backgrounds. This was the catalyst for her research examining the stressors and risk behaviors of affluent youth.

Dr. Luthar has conducted many studies of youth from prosperous suburbs of the Northeast. In one study of a group of 500 youth, half from upper-middle class suburban families and half from low socioeconomic status urban families, the researchers found that the suburban youth reported significantly higher levels of substance use, that this use was often linked to high personal distress, and that anxiety was also significantly higher for the affluent youth. Much of her work has focused on what factors in the lives of affluent middle school youth can predict risky behaviors such as promiscuity, eating disorders and cheating as well as substance abuse.

In addition to identifying risk factors, Luthar's work with families and youth from affluent communities has included looking at what family activities or behaviors enhance or contribute to healthy development. She has looked at family routines, parental involvement, and extracurricular activities. The communities she has studied look very similar to Mercer Island: high-achieving professionals who are intelligent and articulate, with high expectations for themselves and their family members.

What is unique and most positive about Luthar's work is her non-judgmental and compassionate attitude. She recognizes the strengths of communities such as Mercer Island and the many benefits to having resources for our children. Her work focuses on helping communities to become aware of the risks associated with being a high achieving and high income community and what we can do to address some challenges inherent in our lifestyles. Luthar recognizes the destructive stereotypes that often downplay the pain of young people from financially successful families and acknowledges that for many it can be hard to ask for help.

Luthar's presentation is the kick-off event to the Communities That Care (CTC) project of Youth and Family Services. The CTC is a two year community mobilization project that will bring leaders of the community together to assess the strengths and needs of the MI community as it relates to preventing youth risk behaviors, specifically drug and alcohol use. This group will evaluate data related to risk behaviors, past and current efforts and initiatives, what we can learn from those efforts and how we as a community can develop a strategy to effectively deal with the unacceptable level of drug and alcohol use on the Island. Youth drug and alcohol use and abuse has been with us for many years and having an impact on this issue will take time and effort, but this is time and effort that many of us are willing to invest. Luthar's talk will provide some context for the issues we will face in our work ahead.

Please join other concerned community members and the staff of Youth and Family Services on Friday in the high school auditorium to learn about what we can do as families and as a community to raise children who achieve at their best while developing into caring, engaged and well balanced young adults. This is one step we can all take together.

Cindy Goodwin is director of the city's Youth and Family Services.

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