Affluenza: I Have the Cure

m_1766263_B9l1hbiVW4HSSo you’re rich and you can’t handle it.  I can cure you of this.  Just bring me all of your money and possessions, then walk away.  Cured.  But in all seriousness, most of the country was shocked when a judge gave a wayward teen guilty of felony DUI and Vehicular Homicide a mere ten year probation sentence in lieu of jail time.  His decision was based on a debatable psychological disorder called Affluenza where sufferers are wealthy and can no longer relate to reality due to their financial status.  Sixteen year old Ethan Couch’s defense lawyers argued that Couch suffered from this very disorder due to parents that raised him to believe that consequences of the real world did not apply to him because he came from wealth, and his money could buy him out of any situation he encountered.  “A psychologist called as an expert defense witness said the boy suffered from “affluenza,” growing up in a house where the parents were preoccupied with arguments that led to a divorce.”  Dr. Gary Miller also added that the father, “does not have relationships, he takes hostages” and the mother was indulgent insisting that, “Her mantra was that if it feels good, do it.” (Huffington Post, 2013).  Could it be that the previous 16 years of parenting for Ethan Couch, led him to the destructive behavior that took four lives on a dark rural road in June of 2013?  Or could there have been some other clues in psychosocial, cognitive, and behavioral theories that could have predicted this outcome?   While Ethan’s parents certainly had a hand in his adolescent behavior, should we take into account adolescents who didn’t come from such a privileged childhood, who have the same behavioral issues?  And if we are to rule out Affluenza as a true psychological disorder, according to popular development theories, what warning signs are there to clue us in that there will be abnormalities in a child’s future behavior? Everyone has their opinions about proper child rearing however it all boils down to the fundamental development theories of several psychological greats that give us the best insight for normal childhood and adolescent behaviors.

When it comes to psychoanalytic perspective, the most popular theorist that comes to mind is Sigmund Freud.  It is often joked about that that all his theories lead to the blaming of the individuals mother, but it cannot be ignored that while his theories and research were great, Freud had a bit of drug problem that may have jaded his perception of his work just a bit. It causes many to question his work on the interpretation of dreams.  But in the book, ‘An Anatomy of Addiction’ Dr. Howard Markel explains that Freud’s addiction to cocaine was short lived and occurred prior to time of his greatest work stating, “In the 1890s, after almost killing a patient while under the influence of cocaine, Freud stopped using the drug. It was after that when some of his most famous work was produced.” (Bowser, 2011) So while he may have developed his talk theory while under the influence of a drug that makes you talkative, he honed the idea in the early 1900’s to construct his psychoanalytic theory.  “He developed his ideas mostly from his therapeutic sessions with adults, many of whom complained of various psychosomatic disorders. Freud theorized that his patients exhibited physical symptoms due to unconscious processes related to childhood conflicts. He believed that our most basic instinct is to derive pleasure by giving in to our innate aggressive and sexual impulses.” (Mossler, 2011)

When children reach adolescence they become self-aware in which Freud’s contributing theory is that of the Id, The Ego, and the Super Ego.  He believed that our personalities were comprised of these three components and even argued that most of our lives the three are at war with one another.  The Id, is that which controls our basic desires such as eating, breathing, and sex, theorizing that the Id is human unconsciousness driven by our basic human instinct.  The Ego is that which we are condition to believe is right and true. Freud believed that the development of the Ego becomes prevalent in the second and third years of life, also believing that the Ego was rational as it not only tries to satisfy the needs of the Id, but control the urges of the Id as well.  It would seem that parents have an obvious role in the grooming the Ego as they have the most influence on children during this age and stage.  With operant and classical conditioning (to be discussed in detail later) a child’s Ego can be constructed to be one that is beneficial to the child later in life.  Freud believed that Ego “operates on the reality principle as it tries to balance instinctual needs with societal expectations.” (Mossler, 2011)  Therefore if parents can help their children work within a reasonable reality of self-discipline, when that child’s Super Ego develops their sense of morality will be strong.  The conscience that becomes the Super Ego will be better adapted to making decisions between right and wrong, and perhaps with strong parental guidance in this area, when the child reaches adolescence and adulthood the fight between the three will not be so hard to control.

On the other hand, Erik Erikson “argued that Freud misjudged an individual’s interaction with society and the motivation for humans to be immersed in social customs.” (Mossler, 2011)  Erikson believed that it was an individual’s environment that formed and challenged the human consciousness.  His theory predicted that when societal pressures and psychological needs intersect, crises are developed.  “For instance, a fourth-grader has a need to achieve, but may have a teacher who puts unreasonable demands on performance. Perhaps the child has a learning disability or is simply asked to complete work that is too difficult.” (Mossler, 2011)  So in this example the fourth grader has been conditioned to believe that good grades please his parents and gets a sense of pleasure out of pleasing his parents.  But his fourth grade teacher is ridged and gives no room to breathe around the rules and standards of classwork.  The crisis here could be that the kid has a learning disability like dyslexia that has gone undiagnosed.  Or perhaps, the child’s parents are going through a divorce and the amount of stress this situation is placing on the child is making it difficult for the child to concentrate and complete classwork.  With Erikson’s theory parents could help their adolescent/child to overcome this crisis by becoming more aware of the child’s needs and placing the child’s needs before their own.  However, the flaw with his theory is that we cannot always control the triggers of the crisis.  And due to the fact Erikson believed this to be a never ending process, to be forever vigilant of a adolescents social surrounding can be difficult if not impossible.   Although Erikson viewed personality development as a life-long process, Freud’s view that the personality is developed in the first five years is more understandable.  It just may be that our personalities are continually developing, but the first five years is the foundation.  Any strong building must have a solid foundation.

Learning perspectives can make or break a childhood.  How we access and assimilate information dictates how a child will adapt into society.  The theory of Behaviorism gives us insight to this process.  Pavlov could arguably be the most remembered theorist when it comes to classical conditioning.  Without focusing on bells and salivating dogs, he taught us that learning through association is a type of learning where a neutral stimulus is paired with a stimulus that naturally elicits a response. (Mossler, 2011)  A great example of this is potty training.  Parents praise their children when they are first learning to use the potty by cheering, high fives, treats, and the child in return has a sense of pride for using the potty on their own.  As the child gets older and still continues to use the potty, the praise is taken away, but the pride remains.  Even into adult hood when we struggle to make it the bathroom because we’ve waited too long, there’s still a sense of pride that we made it and did not soil ourselves.  While Pavlov’s work in conditioning responses was great, it was really B.F. Skinner that helped us to relate conditioning to child and adolescent behavior.  Skinner demonstrated a type of conditioning that went beyond involuntary responses, and mapped out the results of reinforced behavior as it is associated with conditioning.  “According to Skinner, whenever a behavior is reinforced it is likely to be repeated; whenever a behavior is not reinforced (or ignored) it is likely to die out. If children are reinforced with a treat whenever they whine, they are likely to whine next time; when students click on hyperlinks and are rewarded with more knowledge or better understanding, they are more likely to repeat those behaviors as well.” (Mossler, 2011)

Operant Conditioning proved to be a spring board for Albert Bandura who expanded on the idea believing that it was not enough to choose to reinforce a child’s behavior by either acting on it or ignoring it.  Bandura believed that we could train children through examples of model behavior.  “When bandura offered an incentive for recalling the modeled action, he presented a discriminative stimulus that increased in probability of this verbal behavior.  For most children, it is likely that being promised a reward for recalling some action is a situation that has accompanied reinforcement in the past.” (Pierce, 2004)  Basically a child will be told that his parents will be proud of him if he can make an “A” on his spelling test or he will get to go to the store and pick out a toy, and the child is reinforced for memorizing words.  When Bandura would test this theory, he found that there was a high instance of child recalling what they had learned.   So it’s one thing for parents to teach children that this is how life works, but it is most effective to condition them and reinforce the type of behavior that they desire from their children.

So how can parents apply these theories to childrearing to keep their kids from being affected by Affluenza?  First we have to determine if Affluenza is an actual disorder.  “Affluenza, in fact, is not a recognized illness. It is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association.” (Ferguson, 2013)  In the Time article Ferguson goes on to explain that as a clinical psychologist, he’s never seen a mental health practitioner try and diagnose the disorder.  There’s practically no research literature concerning it and the only empirical research on affluenza was 2010 study by Peter Lorenzi and Roberto Friedman in the Journal Behavioral and Applied Management; and they found little to no evidence of the epidemic sweeping the U.S. nation. (Ferguson, 2013)  So if there’s no real evidence of the disorder, how did Ethan Couch’s defense attorney get a judge to buy the idea that he was affected by it enough to ignore the fact that he killed four people and critically injured two others?  According to most who have encountered claims of affluenza it seems to be “mainly the product of pop psychology” (Ferguson, 2013) used in tax and estate law.  As for a criminal defense it was a first and now a major movement has been started since this ground breaking case to prevent it from being used again in the future.  California law makers have recently presented a bill that would ban affluenza as a defense. (McLaughlin, 2014)

The majority of people who hear about the case of Ethan Couch all come to the same conclusion.  Had his parents applied better morals and proved themselves to be model citizens themselves when raising young Ethan Couch, four people would still be alive today, and his two classmates that have been crippled for life, would still be happy and active teenagers.  But what if we were to expand the accident and make his friends who were involved in the accident a part of the equation as well? Not only did they help Ethan steal the beer earlier that night, they were critically injured because they were riding unsecured in the bed of his pick-up truck and were thrown from the vehicle in the accident.  One of them has been in a vegetative state since the accident. (Huffington Post, 2013)  Were they too afflicted with affluenza?  Were they too taught that it was ok to ignore law and ride drunk in the back of that truck driven by a person that they knew was too drunk to drive?  Should Ethan Couch be held responsible for their decision too?  If the parents of all the teens involved in the accident that night had followed the previously mentioned development theories when these kids were younger, would this situation still have taken place?  If their parents had truly believed like Freud that personalities are developed in the first five years of life, then perhaps they would have taken more caution in helping to form positive reinforcement practices in order to instill upstanding morals and create concrete “zones of proximal development” (Mossler, 2011).  “In order for a child to learn a task within the ZPD, a more-skilled assistant provides guidance. With guided assistance, children acquire more knowledge and skill even as the task becomes more complex.” (Mossler, 2011)  Had the parents of these children implemented a ZPD all the way through adolescence, these children would not have ended up unsupervised and left to their own devices.  Bottom line:  If you don’t want your children to grow up to become alcoholics, watch them like a hawk and don’t model that behavior in your home.  Become the person you want your child to be.

Perhaps had Couch’s parents referred to Piaget’s stages of development it would have been discovered early on that Ethan Couch had mental health issues and they could have had him treated earlier and prevented most of the dangerous behaviors that he presented in the recently.  After all, this was not Couch’s first brush with the law.  “In February of 2013, in the town Lakeside, northwest of Fort Worth, police found Couch with a 12-ounce can of beer and a 1.75-liter bottle of vodka, and a naked 14 year old girl in the backseat of his truck in the early hours and gave him two citations – one for being a minor in possession of alcohol, the other for consuming alcohol as a minor.” (Pow, 2013)  It may not have been enough to even prosecute Couch to the full extent of the law in that incident to avoid the accident in June.  According to the expert witness psychologist G. Miller also stated that, “The teen never learned to say that you’re sorry if you hurt someone.” (Pow, 2013)  This would have been some operant conditioning that he definitely could have benefited from, but never received at home.  However, as Freud’s psychoanalytical theory implies, it’s more than teaching someone a response to an inadvertent action.  It has to do with our sub-conscience and conscience attempting to balance itself and act accordingly.  In this case Ethan Couch’s Id wanted to drink and party, and his Ego was unable to satisfy that urge and control it at the same time.  What makes his case even more complex is that he was condition to believe that his Super Ego was in control and that he was free to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted.  Couch wasn’t raised by wolves, so he wasn’t left in a position to learn to regulate this alone.  He had parents present whose job it was to oversee this and help him to accomplish a healthy balance, but they didn’t.  And this is why the judge saw it fit not to sentence him to jail.  The judge felt that the legal system could and would do a better job of monitoring him than his parents did and punished his parents with fines and banned them from having contact Couch for the next two years or until he turns 18. (Huffington Post, 2013)  While it’s not fair that a no so rich African American 14 year old boy was sentenced to 10 year in a Juvenile detention center for the same crime that only killed one person, it only proves that money was the real influence in this case rather than a sentence being handed down on basis of bad parenting. (Ferguson, 2013)  And you don’t want to get me started on that. so I won’t.

Freud believed that, “our most basic instinct is to derive pleasure by giving in to our innate aggressive and sexual impulses.” (Mossler, 2011) But he also believed that we had it in ourselves to rise above that and become model citizens.  After all, he beat a cocaine habit and did just that.  With help Couch could have used both classic and operant conditioning with the help of his parents or some type of positive guardian to do it too.  And he still can.  “Both Piaget and Vygotsky agree that children actively construct their world, but they differ in the context in which it occurs. While Piaget emphasized the solitary nature of learning, Vygotsky focused on the necessity of others.” (Mossler, 2011)  Couch will no doubt learn this in the treatment center that he has been sentenced to.  He’s still a child, and the psychologists assigned to his case will most likely implement all of the theory practices mentioned here.  Although they weren’t applied in the first five year foundation of his life, we can only hope it’s not too late.  It would be interesting to see the outcome in ten years.


Bowser, B. A. (2011, Oct 17). PBS News Hour: Cocaine: How ‘Miracle Drug’ Nearly Destroyed Sigmund Freud, William Halsted. Retrieved from

Ferguson, C. J. (2013, Dec 12). Affluenza: Junk Science. Retrieved from

Huffington Post. (2013, Dec 09). Affluenza Defense: Rich Texas Teen Gets Probation For Killing 4 Pedestrians While Driving Drunk. Retrieved from

McLaughlin, E. C. (2014, Jan 16). California bill would ban ‘affluenza’ defense in criminal cases. Retrieved from

Mossler, R. (2011). Child and Adolescent Development. In R. Mossler, Child and Adolescent Development (p. 1.4). San Deigo: Bridgepoint Education Inc. .

Pierce, W. D. (2004). Behavior Analysis and Learning. In W. D. Pierce, Behavior Analysis and Learning (p. 312). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates .

Pow, H. (2013, Dec 11). Drink driving teen who killed four is spared jail ‘because he’s rich’: Judge lets ‘spoiled’ boy facing 20 years off with probation after lawyers blame his wealthy parents. Retrieved from

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2 Responses to Affluenza: I Have the Cure

  1. Jackie Saulmon Ramirez says:

    Thought provoking ideas. Any parent’s job as children grow, is to teach them responsibility. Responsibility doesn’t just mean brushing teeth, putting clothes away and doing chores. It means taking consequences for their actions too.

    Thank you for this post.

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