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The Dark Side of Wealth: Risks associated with growing up in an affluent family — Risk #1: Drug & Alcohol Abuse

07Oct 2007

I apologize to my friend, Thayer Willis, for borrowing from the title of her excellent book, Navigating the Dark Side of Wealth, for this entry, but I really couldn’t think of a better description of the topic.

As I work with financially successful families across the country, I repeatedly see three negative patterns in family members. Most often (but not always) the problems are seen in second generation (children) and third generation (grandchildren) family members. The most serious of the three is drug and alcohol abuse. [I plan to address the other two themes in future postings.]

Drug and Alcohol Abuse

This is the “black hole” into which many individuals have fallen, some of whom spend their whole lives trying to escape from it. Unfortunately, others cease trying and either slowly kill themselves over time or end their lives abruptly.

Why do many wealthy family members struggle with drug and alcohol addiction? There are many possibilities, but I will share my own observations.

First, we need to recognize that many individuals struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, regardless of their financial status. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2006 approximately 20 million Americans (8.3% of the population ages 12 and older) used illicit drugs within the month prior to the survey. Similarly, 23% of individuals 12 and older reported binge drinking at least once in the past month and 6.9% of the population reported heavy drinking (defined as binge drinking on at least 5 days in the past 30 days). Interestingly, the binge drinking rate was 42% for young adults aged 18 to 25 and the rate of heavy drinking was 15%.  So we should expect a similar incidence rate for families of wealth. It may seem to some that the frequency of substance abuse is higher in wealthy families, but this may just be perception or the fact that these families often are more visible within the community. Regardless, I think the pathway of substance abuse for individuals from wealthy families has some unique characteristics.

The Pursuit of Pleasure. For some families their use of wealth is to pursue fun, excitement and pleasure. From the time the children are young, they go numerous exotic trips and the kids are sent to lengthy (four to six week) prestigious camps during the summer. As they become preteens and adolescents, they go on vacations every Christmas vacation and Spring break  to the family condo in Aspen for skiing, and to the beach house in Hawaii, the Caribbean or Mexico, along with cruises and excursions to Europe. In their later teens, they obviously go to the most challenging prep school (and many times, boarding school), drive luxury sports cars or SUVs, and basically pursue having a lot of fun. It is during this period (if not in middle school) that they start drinking, “partying”, and experimenting with drugs (usually pot and Ecstasy first).

The combination of access to easy money, a lot of free time, not much parental supervision, and a drive toward excitement leads to an expanded use of drug and alcohol. I believe additional factor includes a lack of purpose and meaning in life beyond pursuing pleasure.

In our culture, the primary view of work is for the purpose of earning money (to support yourself and buy what you need or want). If you have a lot of money (or your family does), the belief is that you really don’t need to work. So studying hard in school loses its meaning and finding a career direction isn’t a high priority (I can always work for the family business or foundation.)  In situations like this, it can be hard to find purpose or meaning in life beyond pursuing pleasure (see Jessie O’Neil’s book, The Golden Ghetto for her personal reflections on this issue.)

The coup d’etat of drug and alcohol abuse in wealthy families is that it is really difficult for the individual to “hit bottom”. It doesn’t take much money to keep an addict going (as evidenced by the homeless, unemployed alcoholics) and many wealthy family members have access to an almost unlimited amount of money. So how are they going to “reach the end of their rope”? Unless families take a very tough stand — to the point of seeming mean — the bottom may never be reached. And so the drug and alcohol use continues indefinitely.

Now, it is easy to describe a problem. It is far more difficult to give an answer.

I am not an addictions expert, by any stretch of the imagination. Each individual’s situation is unique, and there are many contributing factors to addictive behavior. However, I would suggest the following issues that families of wealth need to consider:

1. Be actively involved in your children’s lives. Do not parent by proxy, delegating your parenting to others. Be involved in their school activities and their peer relationships. Don’t be so busy with your activities that you are unable to supervise what is going on in their lives.

2. Identify the purpose and meaning of your family’s wealth and teach this to your children. Is your wealth only for your benefit? I believe if your view of wealth is primarily for your comfort and pursuit of pleasure, you run the risk of significant problems in your family in the future.

3. Understand that the purpose of “work” is more than earning money. Work (whether it is for money, volunteering, or chores at home) brings meaning to life. Using our time, energy and talents for the service of others gives us a sense of purpose. We need to work to develop our skills and abilities, and to find out what we are good at, and what we enjoy doing.

Like any aspect of parenting, there are no guarantees. I view these three issues as “vitamins” in a family’s life that can lead to a healthy family and help reduce the likelihood of serious problems. There is much more which can be discussed regarding this topic, and I don’t want to diminish the seriousness of the issue with a light treatment. But I think a brief introduction to some preventative steps that can be taken can hopefully cause some deeper thought with significant results down the road.

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