Ethan Couch and The “Affluenza” Defense

Is “affluenza” really a mental or behavioral disorder?

From a CNN story: Mexican authorities have detained so-called “affluenza” teen Ethan Couch and his mother near the popular Mexican Pacific beach resort town of Puerto Vallarta, officials briefed on the matter told CNN.

Couch, 18, went missing earlier this month, two years after he made national news when he was sentenced to probation for a drunken driving crash that killed four people.

Couch is expected to be turned over to the U.S. Marshals Service, who have spent weeks searching for him. A spokesman for the service declined to comment.

Word of the search for Couch has reignited controversy over the case, which drew widespread attention after a psychologist testified that Couch, who was 16 at the time, suffered from “affluenza,” describing him as a rich kid whose parents didn’t set limits for him.

The question here is what causes irresponsibility.

The concept “affluenza” implies that a parent causes a young person’s reckless or irrational behavior.

Remember we’re talking about a 16-year-old here (at the time of his crime), and not a 6-year-old. A 16-year-old is a young adult.

Young adults’ behaviors are affected by their environment, including their parents, their peers, cultural and other factors. But a young adult’s behaviors are equally, if not more, affected by his own choices, attitudes, beliefs and desires.

It’s ironic that a psychologist would claim a 16-year-old “suffers” as the “victim” of parents who do not set limits. In the very act of framing young Ethan Couch’s irresponsibility as a mental or behavioral disease, intentionally or not, the psychologist lets the young man off the hook.

According to reports, Couch’s mother helped him violate his probation, perhaps extending a pattern of enabling his irresponsibility. It certainly is possible for a parent, especially of a 16-year-old, to enable, foster, sanction or otherwise condone a child’s wrong or irrational behavior. But it still does not mean the young adult is not making any choices at all. Couch is now 18.

I have known many people who, as adults, talk about how they disagreed with their parents’ attitudes towards them when growing up. Some even say, “My parents never held me accountable. They were trying to be my friends, rather than parents.”

However, this erroneous philosophy on the part of their parents did not prevent them from becoming self-responsible adults. Nor, if they become parents themselves, did it doom them to repeat the same patterns with their own children.

Why? Because free will and choice will always be the most powerful and determining factors, in the end.

There are various and lesser extremes of such a syndrome. Couch’s mother, if the reports are true, represents a major extreme. It still does not mean Couch bears no responsibility. In fact, as Stanton Samenow Ph.D. wrote in his book, Before It’s Too Late: Why Some Kids Get Into Trouble–and What Parents Can Do About It, sociopathic young adults can traumatize their parents just as much as the other way around.

It’s hard to judge just from the few bits of facts we gain from media reports, assuming they are all true. You have to really know something about the regular, daily and inner workings of a family’s dynamics, as well as the actual thinking patterns (or lack thereof) in the individual young adult him- or herself.

Whether young Ethan Couch should have been held accountable as a legal adult, since he was only 16 and not 18 when his offense occurred, is a matter of criminal law philosophy. But I can tell you that he made his own choices. If his mother enables and assists him in being reckless and irresponsible, then she should definitely be blamed, to that extent, for her own role in the problem. But reducing or eliminating his accountability because of his circumstances of “being too wealthy” will send him the ultimate wrong message. If he’s worse at age 18 than he was at age 16, it’s little wonder, given the message he was sent by psychologists and others.

Being wealthy, if anything, means you should have more capacity for responsibility. Money does not buy you happiness, but it does buy you more choices. When you’re well off, you have even more access to better education, more control over the types of friends you have, and knowledge of the various options available, such as therapy or other forms of self-improvement. To say someone is a victim of being too well off is absurd. You might as well be saying, “He had too many choices and opportunities. Maybe if he had fewer, he would have been a better person.”

Let’s not insult the admirable and acceptable choices of people – wealthy and poor – who take responsibility for themselves and their lives. Let’s stop using everything under the sun as an excuse for poor or rotten choices, and then cloaking such excuses in non-existent mental/psychiatric diagnoses.

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