Joining the Dots and Tackling Affluenza

It’s a thing we often try to do – joining the dots. Not so much to see “the bigger picture” as to see the picture at all. Let’s start this week off with a few more dots and see how they might join together.

Dot Number One

This is based on a report in yesterday’s Observer, concerning the life of a wealthy young  teenager who caused the death of several others as a result of his arrogance, self-indulgence, dissipation, lack of “emotional intelligence” and deadly excess of what a judge called “affluenza”. Those who know Bob Dylan’s “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” will be familiar with this scenario – “William Zanzinger with his six months sentence . . .”

In this new case the killer was given no incarceration at all. In both cases the key issue is less to do with alcohol abuse than with the insulating and often damaging effects of extreme wealth, which can bring about a complete disregard for the lives of others – which is often called sociopathy and can extend to either borderline or actual psychopathy.

Affluenza: the latest excuse for the wealthy to do whatever they want

Ethan Couch, a teenager in Texas, killed four people but got off because he comes from a rich family and ‘didn’t know better’

There are many reasons to feel disgust over a judge in a juvenile court in Fort Worth, Texas, sentencing 16-year-old Ethan Couch to 10 years of probation for killing four pedestrians and paralyzing his friend while driving drunk this summer.

Leading up to the tragedy that killed Breanna Mitchell (aged 24), Hollie Boyles (42) and Shelby Boyles (21) and Brian Jennings (43), Couch and a group of friends stole alcohol from a Walmart nearby. At the time of the crash, he was driving a pickup owned by Cleburne Sheet Metal, his father’s company. Couch had seven passengers in his truck and a blood-alcohol content of 0.24, three times the legal limit in Texas. He also had valium in his system. Two of his passengers were severely injured, including Sergio Molina, who suffered brain damage that has left him with blinking as his only form of communication.

Couch has never denied that he was driving drunk that night, nor that he killed those people. Instead, the defense argued that Couch grew up in a family that was dysfunctional, in part because of its wealth, and that he deserved therapy, not incarceration.

affluenza 3During the court trial, the defense called psychologist G Dick Miller as the main witness. He gave now-infamous testimony. Miller diagnosed Couch as suffering from “affluenza” where his parents’ wealth fixed problems in their lives. Miller explained it this way:

    The teen never learned to say that you’re sorry if you hurt someone. If you hurt someone, you sent him money.

He said that Couch had an emotional age of 12 and that both of Couch’s parents failed him. Miller continued:

    He never learned that sometimes you don’t get your way. He had the cars and he had the money. He had freedoms that no young man would be able to handle.

According to Miller, Couch was left to raise himself in a consequence-free environment. Miller advocated for Couch to receive therapy and cease contact with his parents.

Ethan Couch will spend no time behind bars for killing four people and paralyzing another despite admitting guilt and despite the fact that the diagnosis the defense centered their case around – that of “affluenza” – is not even recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as an actual mental illness. On top of it, it appears that the judge found therapy and probation to be valid because his parents could pay for an expensive center and that he would not have to rely on the state programs. In summary, Couch got off because he comes from a wealthy family.

Wealth literally bought this kid’s way out of prison and into a facility that can help him. The tragedy this case highlights is all the children who cannot do that and will instead enter an ever-growing, ever-problematic US criminal system that will most likely fail them – and us.

Dot Number Two

Should people suffering from affluenza, sociopathy or psychopathy (for which they are not responsible) be treated as criminals (as a warning to others?) when they do something wrong, or treated as people who are suffering from a condition that needs understanding and professional diagnosis, support and therapy?

We shared some thoughts on this in a previous blog post on Anders Breivik – “A One-Dimensional Man” – in which we concluded

We’re NOT saying here that good schools and a good education can “cure” psychopaths or prevent those with psychopathic tendencies from turning into depraved individuals. We ARE saying that early identification and tracking of those with a lack of social intelligence and lack of spiritual intelligence is essential if we’re ever going to help those people to be able to live harmlessly in society, to adjust to society’s minimum norms and expectations, and to find productive and peaceful ways to live, and maybe even to care for others, and not simply to love and/or loathe themselves.

Dot Number Three

Affluenza” is the title of a book written by Oliver James and published in 2007, in which he describes the phenomenon of what he calls Affluenza – its causes, symptoms and antidotes. Mr James carried out research in several countries and describes young people who adopt their parents’ unhealthy values and attitudes, which also become the norms and values of their over-aspirational and competitive peer groups.

“The scientific evidence shows that the methods employed for the transmission of values from parent to child . . . are a prescription for Affluenza. Parents do it in two main ways. A controlling pattern uses rewards, threats, deadlines and hectoring words, pressuring them to think, feel and behave in conformity with parental dictates. Love is conditional upon achievement of goals laid down by the parent – there is no love for the child who does not achieve them. By contrast, supportive care takes the child’s perspective, minimizing pressure and encouraging the child to find out for itself what it wants: self-determination by the child is valued.”

“The child does not realise the demand [i.e. the ‘script’] has been introjected because the process by which the parental dictate has become the child’s compulsion has been going on from before it had words with which to question or analyse it.”

“Supportive nurture has a completely different outcome. In place of pressure, there has been affection and encouragement for what the child wants, and into its own chosen mix the child has welcomed some of what the parent wants. For self-regulation, it has ‘identified’ with them, rather than introjected – made an active choice. . . If this child is a hard worker and high achiever, it has chosen to be so of its own accord; its self-esteem does not depend upon how it is ranked against other pupils, or on living up to parents’ or teachers’ standards.”

“Experience will have taught them that the price of love is success, starting with school performance, and usually involving an equation between money and exam success, as in ‘work hard to be able to get a good job and earn a good salary’. The kind of parents who are controlling are . . . likely to have Virus values themselves and to seek to pass them on to their children. If the family is living in a Virus-stricken society, those values will be even more likely to be inculcated in a people-pleasing child who strives to conform to them.”

To combat all of this, James suggests the following ‘vaccines’:

1. Disentangle your parents’ values from your own.
2. Identify introjected values.
3. Scrutinise how you were persuaded by your parents to accede to their wishes.
4. Colonise your inherited values.

Under this 4th heading he writes:

“ Having disentangled what you really care about from what you were forced to value, you are then in a position to choose. (e.g. realising that it’s unimportant whether you replace your car with a brand new one, or keeping the house spotlessly clean.) The key is to start work on finding out what really matters to you, not your parents [or ‘society’], and colonise for yourself.”

Tomorrow we’ll report on what Mr James writes in chapter 8 – “Educate Your Children (Don’t Brainwash Them)”


About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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4 Responses to Joining the Dots and Tackling Affluenza

  1. Tim Taylor says:

    Wow, that was a hard read. I hadn’t heard of ‘affluenza’ before, and now I wish I hadn’t. I do object to the line, “he had an emotional age of 12”. What the hell does that mean? A bloody insult to 12 year olds.

    I hope your next blog carries more hope.


    • 3D Eye says:

      Good point, Tim. What is an “emotional age”? Presumably this a shorthand way of saying “with very little development of the personal, social and spiritual intelligences, and little capacity for being emotionally intelligent.” But as we know, lots of Primary age children have very high degrees of these intelligences – very high levels of empathy and self-knowledge, high degrees of self-control, and highly developed value systems and the capacity for living life virtuously.

      Please don’t be put off the Oliver James book though. It paints a pretty bleak picture of how children and young people are being brought up in many parts of the English-speaking world, but also points out how schooling and parenting is much more enlightened in many of the non-GERM countries he studied, since they place much more emphasis on prioritising PSHE, SRE, spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.


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