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What Made Teen Ethan Couch Think He Could Drink and Drive?

Ethan Couch

Just when I thought I had seen or heard everything, a news item really floored me—or in this case simply made me sick.

Recently, a 17-year-old young man, Ethan Couch, was sentenced to 10 years' probation and an unspecified amount of time at a rehabilitation facility for an unspeakable crime. While driving 70 miles per hour with a blood alcohol level three times the limit, he slammed into innocent bystanders who were trying to help someone get a car started. His foolish decision to drink and drive—30 miles per hour over the speed limit—killed four people and seriously injured two others. Legally, what would have appeared to be a very horrific and sad case for everyone involved became frustrating and complicated by a single word.

Affluenza

According to his defense, this condition—having a privileged upbringing and lacking parental boundaries—apparently resulted in the disastrous events. Ethan's wealthy parents raised him with a sense of entitlement and poor judgment, and thus he was incapable of being held completely accountable. Yes, a sociological term used to define the downright destructiveness that results from greed, selfishness and ruthless behavior brought on by the quest for the almighty dollar became a defense.

Sad, crazy and true! As the grieving widower and father of two of the victims said, “I only wanted to hear two words at the trial: 'I’m sorry.'” And Ethan never uttered them. The devastated father went on to say that his home is now empty and just a house. Tragic.

How did this happen? How can parents with or without economic resources raise children who have absolutely no regard for their peers or fellow citizens? Have we overindulged our children to the point that being responsible for multiple deaths is excusable because they didn’t know?

I can think of two people who are directly responsible and need to be held accountable for this tragedy: his parents. You would think that instead of hiring a high-priced lawyer, they should have invested in parenting classes and psychotherapy for their spoiled, remorseless son. You would think that multiple apologies would have been forthcoming from them. You would think that a judge would understand how her ruling reinforced the double standard of leniency largely related to class and socioeconomic status.

My hope is that as parents this tragic case reminds us that teaching individual responsibility to our children is more important than buying them a new iPad or the latest video game. May it force us to realize that we are raising not just children but citizens of the world, a world that needs compassion and just behavior instead of more senseless deaths and devastated communities.

Do you know any children that suffer from "affluenza"? Post a comment below and tell us about them.

Janet Taylor, MD, MPH, a mother of four, is a psychiatrist in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @drjanet.

Got a question for Dr. Janet? Email her at askdrjanet@familycircle.com.  

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