Trauma is defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary as “severe emotional shock and pain caused by an extremely upsetting experience”[1]. Trauma is not usually associated with being privileged; often it is assumed that a life of privilege and its trappings are easy. However, modern research has shown this is not the case; incidences of mental illness and drug/alcohol addiction are prevalent in those coming from a privileged background, and those who have attained a privileged position in society.

Trauma is traditionally thought of in its most extreme and visible instances, such as physical abuse or neglect. However, many factors can place the brain under sufficient stress to cause trauma. This article will examine the relationship between trauma and privilege.

Stress and trauma can cause lasting changes in the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. It is also linked with increased cortisol and noradrenalin responses to successive stressors[2]. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is caused by trauma, with an estimated 16% of children exposed to trauma going on to develop PTSD. Further illnesses resulting from this can include depression, anxiety, addiction, and somatic health problems[3].

There are various strata of privilege; this article will focus on privilege in terms of developed Western society. However, it is interesting to note that seemingly the richer the country, the higher the risk of depression[4]. A study of affluent youth in America found that youths from an affluent background reported higher rates of depression and anxiety than their less-privileged peers, and also higher usage of illegal drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. One reason for this could be as a coping mechanism for some of the problems discussed later in this article, but it is important to note that it is reported that higher-income families were more likely to have a permissive attitude towards marijuana and alcohol use[5]. Despite some families seeing it as harmless, teen drug use is also a predictor for later drug addiction[6]. Researchers have also hypothesised that this early drug use is linked with maladjustment in privileged teens[7].

One particular stressor which privileged children may encounter is a high-pressure environment and large parental expectations. They are often pushed to excel academically and in extra-curricular activities, which can be very stressful[8]. It can also be disheartening and traumatic if they feel that they do not measure up to these high standards. Statistics have shown that children who exhibit ‘perfectionist’ tendencies are at a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and substance use[9].

Children and teenagers from wealthy families are often left at home alone for several hours a week, with parents claiming that this increases self-sufficiency[10]. Parents may also be absent from home-life due to having demanding careers typical of high-earners[11]. This can lead to two feelings of abandonment; emotional and literal. With regards to emotional abandonment, children may not get the ‘bonding time’ in which their parents can emotionally support their child. This can take place during evenings, particularly at shared mealtimes, which are statistically less likely for privileged children[12].

Privileged children are also more likely to be taken care of by nannies or house-workers, which is where the feeling of literal abandonment is rooted. This can be compounded by the fact that these children are more likely to be sent away to boarding school, which can increase the child’s lack of bond with their parents and has also been linked to psychological problems later in life[13].

Privileged people may also encounter dismissive and unsympathetic attitudes towards their problems[14]. These problems are also apparent in service providers; some researchers have claimed that privileged victims of spousal abuse have their claims trivialised, with people assuming they already have the necessary resources to leave their partners[15].

Coming from a privileged background has also been linked to increased levels of narcissism and entitlement[16]. Whilst these may seem like merely distasteful character traits, narcissistic traits have been shown to be linked with drug addiction[17].

Privilege does not only negatively impact on teenagers and children; it can also be detrimental in adults. It is thought that the lifestyle associated with achieving material wealth, long working hours being an example of this, can impact on leisure time and deplete one’s emotional energy[18]. It is also claimed some of the traits which enable people to become very successful, such as single-mindedness and opportunism, can often come at the detriment of skills with interpersonal relationships[19]. It has been said that the acquisition of wealth can also be an addictive yet vacuous trait in itself, with the subject always wanting to acquire more, which results in permanent dissatisfaction[20].

To conclude, when approaching trauma, it is helpful to realise that no two human experiences are the same. Whilst it is certainly the case that coming from a background of poverty can have its own attached trauma, coming from a background of privilege does not make one immune to trauma and its associated effects, and can come with its own unique set of potential problems.



Sources:

[1] "TRAUMA | Meaning In The Cambridge English Dictionary". Dictionary.Cambridge.Org, 2020, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/trauma.

[2] Bremner, J Douglas. “Traumatic stress: effects on the brain.” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience vol. 8,4 (2006): 445-61.

[3] Kolaitis, Gerasimos. “Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder in children and adolescents.” European Journal of Psychotraumatology vol. 8,sup4 1351198. 29 Sep. 2017, doi:10.1080/20008198.2017.1351198.

[4] Luthar, Suniya S., and Shawn J. Latendresse. "Children Of The Affluent". Current Directions In Psychological Science, vol 14, no. 1, 2005, pp. 49-53. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00333.x. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

[5] Schulenberg JE, Maggs JL. A developmental perspective on alcohol use and heavy drinking during adolescence and the transition to young adulthood. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Supplement. 2002;14:54–70.

[6] Crews, Fulton et al. "Adolescent Cortical Development: A Critical Period Of Vulnerability For Addiction". Pharmacology Biochemistry And Behavior, vol 86, no. 2, 2007, pp. 189-199. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.pbb.2006.12.001. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

[7] Luthar SS, D'Avanzo K. Contextual factors in substance use: a study of suburban and inner-city adolescents. Dev Psychopathol. 1999;11(4):845-867. doi:10.1017/s0954579499002357.

[8] Luthar, Suniya S. “The culture of affluence: psychological costs of material wealth.” Child development vol. 74,6 (2003): 1581-93. doi:10.1046/j.1467-8624.2003.00625.x. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

[9] Luthar, Suniya S., and Shawn J. Latendresse. "Children Of The Affluent". Current Directions In Psychological Science, vol 14, no. 1, 2005, pp. 49-53. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00333.x. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

[10] Hochschild AR. The time bind: When work becomes home and home becomes work. New York: Metropolitan Books; 1997.

[11] Luthar, Suniya S. “The culture of affluence: psychological costs of material wealth.” Child development vol. 74,6 (2003): 1581-93. doi:10.1046/j.1467-8624.2003.00625.x.

[12] Luthar, Suniya S., and Shawn J. Latendresse. "Children Of The Affluent". Current Directions In Psychological Science, vol 14, no. 1, 2005, pp. 49-53. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00333.x. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

[13] Schaverien, Joy. Boarding School Syndrome. 1st ed., Routledge.

[14] Luthar, Suniya S. “The culture of affluence: psychological costs of material wealth.” Child development vol. 74,6 (2003): 1581-93. doi:10.1046/j.1467-8624.2003.00625.x

[15] Weitzman S. Not to people like us: Hidden abuse in upscale marriages. New York: Basic Books; 2000.

[16] Piff, Paul K.. “Wealth and the Inflated Self.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 40 (2014): 34 - 43.

[17] Eric van Schoor (1992) Pathological narcissism and addiction: A self-psychology perspective, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 6:3, 205-212, DOI: 10.1080/02668739200700191.

[18] Diener E, Biswas-Diener R. Will money increase subjective well-being? Social Indicators Research. 2002;57:119–169.

[19] Warner, Silas L. "Psychoanalytic Understanding And Treatment Of The Very Rich". Journal Of The American Academy Of Psychoanalysis, vol 19, no. 4, 1991, pp. 578-594. Guilford Publications, doi:10.1521/jaap.1.1991.19.4.578.

[20] Pittman FS. Children of the rich. Family Process. 1985;24:461–472.