SLS PA: Dr. Suniya Luthar Shares Her Research on Vulnerability in Affluent Teens

On Monday, November 27, St. Luke’s parents and their friends filled the Fireplace Commons to hear nationally-acclaimed researcher Suniya Luthar, Ph.D., share highlights of her research about the risks of growing up in an affluent community. She spoke about how the pressure felt by children at high-achieving schools leads to significantly greater levels of distress than national norms. In the Northeast, substance use is a particular problem due to easy access (money, fake IDs, etc.), lack of consequences from parents, peer norms, and pressure to succeed socially, academically and in extracurricular activities.
Dr. Luthar noted that affluent parents often live vicariously through their children’s achievements, and some kids believe their parents’ love for them depends on their accomplishments. We need to be vigilant in watching for distress in our children, check in with them to make sure they are still having fun in their activities, and let them know we have their backs.
The pressure to achieve is especially intense for affluent teens, who want to attain their parents’ standard of living. These teens think they have to take advantage of every opportunity available to them to achieve their goals, and there are few achievements that privilege can’t improve with tutors and lessons. Too many students are struggling under the “just do more” culture in their communities, so Dr. Luthar cautioned that emphasizing a growth mindset is only productive when the goals toward which we apply the growth mindset are healthy ones.
Dr. Luthar offered strategies for parents to help cultivate resilience in their children, such as maintaining a balance in valuing achievement versus integrity. Parents need to ensure down time for their children by prioritizing what is critical and letting go of what is not as important, and they need to be firm and set consistent limits, especially around substance use. She warned that criticism is strongly linked to multiple symptoms, and it takes three times as many positive words to offset harsh words.
Research shows we can also work with aspects of school climate to help foster well-being in our children. The level of enthusiasm in school hallways tends to be inversely proportional to the selectivity of the schools. In addition to more sleep and less emphasis on AP courses and SAT scores, kids need to believe their teachers care about them, and they need adults in whom they can confide. Ultimately, resilience rests on relationships. Adults and children alike need authentic connections with their friends, families and colleagues.
Thank you Dr. Luthar for such an interesting and informative discussion! We look forward to continuing our PA Speaker Series this winter.

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St. Luke’s School is a secular private school in New Canaan, CT for grades 5 through 12 serving 25 towns in Connecticut and New York. Our exceptional academics and diverse co-educational community foster students’ intellectual and ethical development and prepare them for top colleges. St. Luke’s Center for Leadership builds the commitment to serve and the confidence to lead.