The popular press has devoted rivers of ink to chronicling the "epidemic" of narcissistic, overinvolved parents producing spoiled, entitled children with poor values. But my experience leads me to a very different conclusion. Most of my patients are deeply troubled, not spoiled; most of their parents are not narcissistic but are struggling, often quite alone, with their own problems. The suffering felt by parents and children alike is genuine, and not trivial. The kids I see have been given all kinds of material advantages, yet feel that they have nothing genuine to anchor their lives. They lack spontaneity, creativity, enthusiasm and, most disturbingly, the capacity for pleasure. As their problems become more evident, their parents become confused and worried sick. As they either withdraw or ratchet up their involvement, their children seem less and less able to accomplish the tasks of childhood and adolescence -- developing friendships, interests, self-control and independence.
The traditional trajectory of adolescence -- withdrawal, irritability, defiance, rejection of parental values, the trying on and discarding of different identities, and, finally, the development of a stable identity -- seems to have given way to a far less successful trajectory. Fewer and fewer affluent teens are able to resist the constant pressure to excel. Between accelerated academic courses, multiple extracurricular activities, premature preparation for high school or college, special coaches and tutors engaged to wring the last bit of performance out of them, many kids find themselves scheduled to within an inch of their lives. Criticism and even rejection become commonplace as competitive parents continue to push their children toward higher levels of accomplishment. As a result, kids can't find the time, both literal and psychological, to linger in internal exploration; a necessary precursor to a well developed sense of self. Fantasies, daydreaming, thinking about oneself and one's future, even just "chilling" are critical processes in self-development and cannot be hurried. Every child has a different timetable, and most are ahead of the pack in some areas and behind in others. We would do well to remember "late bloomers" like Albert Einstein, John Steinbeck, Benjamin Franklin and J.R.R. Tolkein. Sometimes a nudge is helpful, but a shove rarely is.
What looks like healthy assimilation into the family and community -- getting high grades, conforming to parents' and community standards, and being receptive to the interests and activities valued by others -- can be deceptive. Kids can present as models of competence and still lack a fundamental sense of who they are. Psychologists call this the "false self," and it is highly correlated with a number of emotional problems, most notably depression.