10/17/2013 11:06 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Can You Be Rich and Have Healthy Children?

Psychologists and sociologists have known for many years about the childhood risks associated with poverty. Children raised in lower socioeconomic conditions are more likely to suffer from a variety of emotional, social, and academic issues in comparison to children raised in middle-class families.

However, a growing body of research over the past decade or so has pointed to an additional group of children at risk due to economic conditions: wealthy kids. Studies are suggesting that children raised in upper-class families have an increased risk of developing emotional disturbances, are more likely to have disturbed eating patterns, are more likely to have body image issues, and are at a greater risk for developing eating disorders than children from middle-class families.

This wealthy family risk factor, know in the literature as "the risk of affluence" or "Affluenza" is something than many had anecdotal support for but is only recently receiving proper scientific attention.

Many explanations have been forwarded to try and explain this connection between wealth and difficulties. Being raised in a wealthy family may entail certain pressures that children respond to in unhealthy ways. Academic burdens, an overemphasis on physical looks, or a general sense of needing to act in specific proper ways to match the family status may create a harmful high-stakes atmosphere for children. This type of pressure is an unfortunate breeding ground for depression, body image concerns, and disturbed eating habits.

An additional component of this risk may involve a developed mentality of privilege that may not serve children as they mature and join the real world. Although this mentality is hard to scientifically operationalize, and hence has yet to be tested empirically, clinical reports of children growing up in wealthy families support this hypothesis.

Case-in-point: Some years ago I worked with a couple who were having some interpersonal difficulties. My initial contact was with the woman who was recently married and having some marital concerns. After a few sessions it was obvious that the difficulties that this young lady was experiencing was more of a family system issue and I encouraged her to ask her spouse to come into session. After initial resistance, the couple agreed to come together and meet with me.

Turns out this young lady grew up in an extremely wealthy home environment, with parents who spared no expense to satisfy their beloved children. Family vacations included spending time at the family's second home on the beach, hitting the waters on the family yacht, and weekend getaways to Italy, to name a few. Highlighting the level of abundance, this young lady recounted in one of our meetings that at some point during her adolescent years the family was going to head out to Europe for a vacation but she chose to stay home instead of going on a "boring" overseas trip.

Soon after this young lady was married the difficulties with her new husband began. The problem, as the husband put it, was that "we never seem to talk about our issues; we just kind of ignore them and hope they go away." It became apparent that the women had difficulties in facing standard marriage issues head-on. When the unresolved marriage tensions became unbearable she would just suggest to her husband that they go out and buy something new for their home or go on some vacation, leaving the disagreements unresolved. In one revealing session that centered on the hard work entailed in marriage she acknowledged, "Well, that is not how things worked in my house; my parents never fought; they had the money to get whatever they wanted so things just worked themselves out."

There are many problems out there in the real world that cannot be amended by throwing money at it. Relationship issues are one such problem. Money can't fix communication problems. Relationship problems require hard work entailing emotional maturity, the ability to communicate openly, listen attentively, and respond effectively. This combination of factors does not come naturally, it requires years of early childhood experiences involving disappointments, frustrations, challenges, and disagreements all of which serve as the place where parents teach their children about proper conflict resolution.

This mentality, or difficulty in navigating challenges, may be a factor in the common tale of wealthy children taking over successful family businesses only to see the business fall apart. In the U.S., only 12 percent of family businesses survive by the third generation. In the western world this phenomenon may be know as "Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations," but across the world similar idioms exist: "clogs to clogs in three generations" or "rice paddy to rice paddy in three generations."

The idea that family wealth, in and of itself, will lead to a better life for children is flawed. Studies on the link between wealth and happiness indicate that money does correlate with happiness but only up to a middle-class income. Beyond that, wealth can be a risk factor for children, adolescents, and young adults. These risks need to be taken into account by parents of means and, similar to specialized interventions that are now common-place for children in poverty, unique tools are needed to deal with the inherent challenges entailed in raising healthy, wealthy children.