Some Clarification on Affluenza

The story of Ethan Couch  seems to have captivated much of the internet.  The 16 year-old, who killed 4 people because he was drunk driving, received probation and counseling for his offense.   Couch was referred to a luxurious rehabilitation site, to suit his specific needs and help address his symptoms, primarily an overwhelming sense of entitlement, a grandiose sense of self paired with a lack of recognition of others’ personal value, and belief that rules do not apply to him.  This may misdiagnosed as Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

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Affluenza, it has has now been legally and medically termed.  A condition in which one fails to recognize that actions have consequences.  This condition results from never experiencing consequences in one’s life.  Parents fail to explain and enforce limit.  This usually begins at an early age; a child throws a tantrum and, rather than getting a time-out, they are given a new toy.  In essence, the child is placated, rather than punished.  As the child matures, this lax enforcement of rules and consequences eventually generalizes to outside of the home environment.  In school, the child may push boundaries, tease or bully classmates, refuse homework, or charm their way out of responsibilities.  This pattern of behaviors is reinforced by those around the child.  Parents provide inadequate or inappropriate responses to unacceptable behaviors, teachers in prestigious school are disempowered from appropriately disciplining the child, and legal consequences are offset by family wealth.  The underlying belief is that the child cannot or should not suffer consequences if they can be avoided.  This teaches the child, not to avoid bad behavior or even to avoid getting caught, but simply that consquences, no matter how serious, can be negotiated in a way where “everybody wins.”  This condition is highly associated with a melanin-deficiency and seven-figures in the bank (or trust fund, if under age 18).

Looking at the child through an ecosystemic lens, we can better understand how such behavior is reinforced by one’s environment.

If you look carefully, you can actually see how the world actually revolves around the child.

If you look carefully, you can actually see how the world actually revolves around the child.

Although some were taken aback by Couch’s sentence, which seemed light compared to his offense, there is actually a great deal of historical precedent for Affluenza.  As with many psychiatric diagnoses, we can recognize instances of the disorder long before we had defined and termed it.  For example, we may retrospectively diagnose Ted Kennedy and even Laura Bush with Affluenza.  In fact, it would seem that this particular disorder is common to those in politics.  Phil Spector seems to suffer a terrible, chronic case of Affluenza as well.   A quick internet search will also bring up a  list of well-to-do individuals who have suffered and appear to have made a full recovery from this malady.   Fictional portrayals are also common in the US.  Gossip Girl is a wonderful fictionalization of this disorder and it’s systemic impact.


It would seem that treatments for such a diagnosis should begin early in life.  A Systemic treatment model would likely be appropriate.  If we re-visit Bronfenbrenner’s model, we can see imagine ways to tweak the various systems in order to treat, and perhaps even prevent, cases of Affluenza.

Let us look again at how each layer of influence and how it might contribute to Affluena.

Let us look again at each layer of influence and how it might contribute to Affluena.

With the growing wealth gap and loss of the Personal Responsibility Value in the upper class of all generations, we face a potential epidemic of Affluenza.

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