The Power Of No: Preventing Affluenza* In Your Teenager

Posted on February 3rd, 2015

Manoj V Waikar, MDPsychiatristPrivate Practice

In 2013, a Texas judge sentenced a teenager to probation instead of prison for killing 4 and injuring 11 while driving drunk in a stolen car with seven passengers. Surveillance showed him shoplifting alcohol prior to the accident and his speed was at least 70 MPH in a 40 MPH zone. The defense successfully argued that the boy suffered from affluenza – his parents teaching him that wealth buys privilege – and therefore he was unable to link his bad behavior with consequences.

While this nightmarish scenario may seem extreme, I hope it brings a pause to all parents, especially to those in affluent communities. You want to give your children the “best” tools to succeed; but in doing so do you risk spoiling them and fostering dependence, or worse, entitlement?

I’m sure all parents would rather see their teen as class valedictorian than a regular on the “Rich Kids of Instagram,” but unless parents overcome the common fear of saying “no,” the latter is all too possible.

Let’s look at some of the ways that you, guardians of teens, can better understand and utilize your powers of prevention (to save space the word ‘parent’ will be used but includes any adult guardian).

1. Teens are professional limit testers, so plan for it.

  • Teens are hard wired to push against boundaries. It’s that simple. Whether at school, home, in sports and extracurriculars, that’s what they do. No matter how much you give them, they’ll ask for more.
  • Don’t worry, it’s not personal and it’s universal. As parents, if you are surprised by this or ill equipped to handle it, you may find your sanity in short supply.
  • The good news is that despite their constant, outward rebellion teens seek containment. They won’t admit it, but when they know that there is a “holding environment” created by parents and institutions, they feel safe and secure.
  • So, don’t be afraid to say “no.” That’s your job, just as it’s theirs to say “why not?”

2. If you’re not the one to say no, then the “real world” might be rough.

  • Parents, your “walls” might hurt a bit when your teen pushes the limit. But teachers, coaches, police officers, and jail wardens may not be as nice about it. And many of these “real world” authority figures take morbid pleasure in punishing teens and adults that they perceive as entitled or privileged.

3. Say “no” more effectively and less painfully by utilizing ‘quiet consequences.’

  • Don’t wait until you’re enraged to finally say “no.” An explosive, dramatic “no!” backfires and eventually empowers teens to defy you even more and respect you even less.
  • Look to great films, books, and TV to see this in action: The most powerful characters are quiet and confident; they elicit cooperation and compliance without raising their voices.
  • A well thought out system for rules and consequences allows for thoughtful discipline that eventually becomes preemptive.
  • I recommend that first the adults agree upon specific rules and boundaries then sit down with teens and add consequences.
  • Ideally the planned punishments will be acceptable to all but when that’s not possible please explain your thought processes so you can model reasonable rule to your teens rather than subjecting them to arbitrary, authoritarian rule.
  • If nobody has time for a family meeting to set this system up then use group emails and withhold something valuable until the process is done.
  • Once your code is implemented it’s critical that you, parents, stick to the plan. Don’t saddle yourselves with consequences that are burdensome to enforce. Parental consistency and reliability teaches kids early on that your “system” is solid. They’ll still try to hack the system but if they can’t exploit loopholes or split between parents, then they’ll begin to accept it and grow up.
  • Does this sound like a painful process? Then skip it but in a few months or years there may be processes much more painful coming your way 😉

4. Let’s talk about money.

  • Regardless of your relative wealth your teen should learn the value of a dollar. It’s okay to provide a high end infrastructure ‎that includes housing, education, healthcare, and even luxury travel when the family is together. But when teens are hanging out with their friends maybe a dollar spent can be a dollar that was earned?
  • If a part-time job isn’t appropriate, then perhaps household chores can be used to earn money, but only if a realistic rate is used. Nobody in the real world gets $20 for 30 minutes of unskilled, manual labor.
  • Avoid the temptation to use money to compensate for hurt feelings. If you yelled at your teen unfairly because you had a bad day, just apologize but don’t monetize. The same goes for even a major issue like divorce. Talk, listen, sympathize but don’t monetize. Teens are resilient, adaptive and will face emotional challenges throughout their lives so there’s no need to pay them for unintentional distress.

Parenting your teen comes with an extra challenge when affluence dominates their environment. Having a solid game plan and being comfortable with saying “no” can help you to raise mature, self-reliant young adults.

*The trademark for the word “AFFLUENZA” is currently held by B.I.M. Imaging.


Sharing best practices among parents can bring generalizations and guidelines to life. In what specific ways do you, as parents, help your children stay financially grounded?

What has it been like for you as parents when you’ve had to say no to your teen?

Do you give your children money through a fixed allowance tied to chores or is it event driven (on as needed basis)? More importantly, can you share your thoughts on why you’ve chosen your method?

There’s been some noise in the news lately about wealthy families intentionally leaving nothing for their children out of fear that they won’t be self sufficient. Is this the ultimate form of saying no? What role might the expectation of a large inheritance play in a child’s financial values?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Would you like additional guidance in this area? Los Gatos Teen Therapy provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.

5 thoughts on “The Power Of No: Preventing Affluenza* In Your Teenager

  1. Lindsay Smith

    These are great tips! I especially like the reminder that teens are professional limit testers and if we are expecting this, it will be easier for us to handle. I also really like the idea of our teens earning the money they will spend when out with their friends, and doing so at a realistic rate. This thought pairs well with John Hogan’s article explaining the benefits of teens getting a part-time job during their high school years. And finally, as a therapist, I really appreciate the comment about not monetizing hurt feelings – what teens really need from their parents is love and emotional support!

  2. Carol Satterlee

    Yes, this is a GREAT article, one I will definitely forward to parents of preteens and teens. Dr. Waikar’s tips are clear, specific, and so supportive to provide parents who really straddle how to stay connected with their teens, yet with clear concrete boundaries. I’ve come across so many parents who really don’t know how to draw the line out of fear of losing connection. Dr. Waikar’s tips are just what they need. And yes, I agree with Lindsay’s thoughts below. I’ve come across many teens who have voiced the desire and need for more emotional support and love from their parents — and shown by actions, not just the words.

    GREAT article, Dr. Waikar.

  3. ManojWaikarMD

    This is Dr Waikar and i am happy to take additional comments and questions as they arise. i’ll be available and try to respond asap when new comments come in. thanks!

  4. Jan

    The story of the teen in the first paragraph was more appalling with each line that I read! His parents, attorney, and the justice system failed this teenager miserably…where is the accountability on any level? I totally agree that chores are necessary for individual responsibility and supporting family as a unit…the money earned teaches independence and budgeting when they handle their own finances. What parent doesn’t want their children to have these qualities to take through their lives? Teachable moments make a lifetime of difference!

    1. ManojWaikarMD

      Jan, you are absolutely right! That story that opens the article is utterly appalling. And while i chose that one for shock value there are minor versions of that among teens–and the adults that parent them–happening all over. I’m a big fan of collegiate and professional sports and there too we see these young superstars who seem to have never been told ‘no’ falling predictably into all kinds of trouble. I agree with you that it seems to be a rhetorical question when parents are asked if they want their kids to be accountable and self-sufficient; the trouble lies in the disconnect between those sentiments and the tough parenting actions required to instill these values–especially in an affluent community, which can create almost a ‘herd immunity’ that stops well-intending parents from imparting a real world sense of money and power in their children.

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