Affluenza: Is “Spoiled Rotten” The New Accountability Excuse?

Outrage was fairly widespread when a judge apparently agreed with a defense attorney’s argument that a 16 year-old who stole beer from a Wal-Mart store, washed some Valium tablets down with it, then proceeded to drive drunk and recklessly, killing 4 people (and leaving 2 others paralyzed) in the process, actually suffered from a psychological “disorder” (labeled by some psychobabbling mental health professionals as “affluenza”) and should therefore be afforded the opportunity to be rehabilitated and hopefully grow a conscience in treatment instead of being otherwise punished for his crimes.   The judge’s decision in the Ethan Couch case left many wondering whether being “spoiled rotten” will become the new defense for delinquent juveniles hoping to evade accountability for their actions.

Ethan Couch has lived the life of privilege for most of his young years, and he’s been breaking some major rules and getting into trouble since his early teens.  He’s also been getting away with it, developing a huge sense of entitlement in the process. Juvenile delinquency is nothing new, of course.  But the Couch case is is particularly troubling because many see it as evidence of a serious double standard within the justice system when it comes to wealthy vs. poor individuals. Critics point out that every day in our country, troubled teens from underprivileged backgrounds are tried as adults and slapped with lengthy prison terms for similar (or even lesser) kinds of conduct. Such criticism indeed has great merit.  But another, less talked about yet highly important issue is whether the imposed “consequence” (Couch was sentenced to 10 years probation including a 2-year stint in a treatment program) even begins to adequately serve the purpose of possibly reforming this young man’s attitudes and behavior. Spending two years in a posh mountainside retreat-style “rehab” center (the almost half million dollar cost for which the teen’s parents must pay) is most probably not going to accomplish that. The treatment model at such facilities is simply not sufficiently specialized to adequately address this teen’s significant character impairments.  And despite the fact that the particular center chosen for Ethan’s rehab will cost his voraciously “enabling” parents a lot of money, the “consequence” they’re experiencing is also inadequate.  Any way you look at it, this case seems like a travesty of justice.

Because of how we punish in America (for more information on punishment, popular misconceptions about it, and how it can indeed be effective when implemented properly, see my articles on the subject as well pages 249-251 in my book Character Disturbance), the prison sentences we impose on serious lawbreakers serve less to send a deterring “message” to them and other would-be offenders and more to temporarily reduce the opportunity they have to freely victimize the general public by keeping them sequestered.  Still, anyone would have to wonder what kind of message Couch’s sentence sends to to him, to his and other parents, and to all the other would-be delinquents out there, privileged or not.  Right now, the message seems to be that you can repeatedly violate the law (Ethan’s had multiple run-ins with the law and multiple episodes of drunkenness, had been driving since age 13 and was, astonishingly enough, just in court 3 months prior to this tragic event) and in your recklessness take the lives of 4 people (and seriously paralyze two others), if you just happen to be the “victim” of your parents’ failure to teach you any better.  Moreover, the only prices you or your family will have to pay is a warning about what might happen if you don’t seriously consider changing your ways and the cost of treatment for your “illness.”  What a message to send!  And given Ethan’s history, and the little heed he’s paid to the various “messages” and warnings (including formal warnings from the court) he’s been sent in the past, it’s quite likely this latest message has also fallen on deaf ears.

I’m old enough to remember when parents were not only held fully accountable for the actions of minors under their care but also took this responsibility very seriously.  As a result, they made sure not only to teach their children right from wrong, but to hold them accountable for their actions, lest the entire family pay a steep price both financially and with respect to public standing and personal honor. Today, everyone is a “victim” of some sort.  Even a youngster who steals, repeatedly illegally drinks, engages in many reckless and illegal acts, and does so with full knowledge of the risks, is somehow the “victim” of the parents who spoiled him rotten and taught him that there’s always a way to buy yourself out of trouble.  I’m also old enough to remember when justice was meted out with a certain degree of “blindness” and dispassion.  You broke the law, and you paid the price. It was that simple.   Nothing is that simple anymore.

It’s never been good public policy to adjudicate by sentiment as opposed to reason, but I think it’s self-evident that sentiment played far too big a role in the sentence Couch received (and I’m not merely talking about the probation vs. hard sentence or prison vs. rehabilitation issues here because there were lots of options available to the judge for imposing consequences that might have actually fairly punished the youngster as well as truly facilitated his rehabilitation).  For if the judge were really so concerned that this youngster’s problems directly stemmed from him never having learned to “link bad behavior with significant consequences,” the sentence she imposed does little to “correct” that irresponsibility-fostering perception.  To me, that’s the proof that sentiment – not reason – played the greater role in the judge’s decision.  And it’s the absence of sound reasoning that’s one major reason for the hard to understand decision in this case.

Another serious, and perhaps even more insidious factor at play in the Couch case is the all-too-common misunderstanding about how various psychological “disorders” bear upon a person’s culpability.  There are only a few “disorders” that truly impair a person’s ability to know right from wrong or to exercise voluntary control over their conduct (for more on this see some of my other articles, such as: Mental Disorders and Accountability: Is Everyone a Victim?).  Still, defense attorneys often use (and judges, unfortunately, accept) the “mental disorder excuse,” casting their clients as victims of conditions that predispose them to act in bad ways and successfully argue for treatment in lieu of punishment.  And given the horrendous overcrowding that exists in our jails and prisons, such sentences, though contraindicated much of the time, are often eagerly embraced.

If ever there were a prime example of how socio-cultural factors influence the prevalence and degree of character disturbance in our young people, the case of Ethan Couch, (prominently featuring his “enabling” parents, the power of wealth and privilege, and the folly of a confused, misguided, and truly dysfunctional justice system), is it!  About the only good news coming out of this news story was the willingness of a few psychologists and other mental health professionals to finally step up and speak out about character issues and the absurdity and harmfulness of casting character problems as “illnesses,” including completely made-up illnesses like “affluenza.”  Too bad so many of spokespersons I saw on TV and heard on radio still seemed somewhat wishy-washy in their stance and generally under-informed about character pathology.  Still, it seems that a small change might be taking place in the “zeitgeist” (i.e. attitudinal “atmosphere” or milieu) of both our culture and the professional community.  So perhaps some good will eventually come of what appears now to be a truly tragic miscarriage of justice.

27 thoughts on “Affluenza: Is “Spoiled Rotten” The New Accountability Excuse?

  1. I am curious………what DOES a child do that was over indulged and allowed to get away with SO much?? and then, BAM……they are an adult and severely damaged and possibly mentally and emotionally warped! Like the damage is so deep and possibly there from birth and may have been able to have turned around with proper intervention but wasn’t? I am mostly speaking about my brother………between being “bailed out” of problems when he was young, then into drugs and alcohol to the point that it only escalated his downward trend, finally ending up a convicted felon repeatedly……At a certain point he was so damaged I don’t think he can even process things in a normal way.

    1. So we see how habitual ways of thinking and behaving can worsen problems that would be consuming enough for a goodwilled yet troubled person.

  2. J, I think that HAS to be true. The way alcohol affects the neurochemistry and brain structure of people who abuse alcohol produces Spathieness,,,,,,maybe to a lesser degree than full blown Spaths but imagine what it does to someone who is genetically leaning in that direction from birth and/ or someone who’s traumatic infancy and childhood has flipped the Spath switch to the on position.
    I believe there is a developmental “window” in childhood that holds the greatest potential for positive intervention for all kinds of neurological conditions. If that window is missed change is still possible but much much more difficult. So imagine that not only the window gets missed but also negative influences take hold. Not a very hopeful scenario

  3. I was thinking about narcissists and self-awareness, which led me to another pondering.

    Can self-awareness come in shades of grey? Now, knowing what you are doing is obviously self-awareness, as is knowing why you do it. Knowing what you intend to accomplish by some action is obviously self-awareness and so is knowing what the motivator behind that is.

    However, isn’t having an intuitive feel of how others likely see you also self-awareness?

    What does this have to do with narcissists?

    Now, folks reading this blog know narcissists do know who they are and what they are doing(individual exceptions notwithstanding). I do think someone so full of himself can still know intuitively how they appear to others and engage in impression management as much as their more actively unscrupulous counterparts. However, is it possible that an egotist could be aware of their motivators yet still have no social self-awareness?

    1. J………you know how Dr. Simon (who is conspicuously quiet these days. I hope he is ok!) says: “They see, they just disagree”? Maybe there is a version that applies to your pondering?? They are aware, they just don’t care”!!

    2. I’m not talking about deliberately aggressing and then making excuses. I’m talking about actually lacking in people skills.

      Again, many of my comments are either intuitive feelings or speculations. The same goes for this. Don’t some narcissists(egotists) and aggressors succeed partly because they do care about swaying others. Then aren’t there some, who actually don’t care about developing the most superficial of people skills, because they apparently think they should get what they want everything else be damned?

      I think I need to rein in these ponderings, when I end up answering my own questions anyway.

      Still, I recall one article by Dr Simon about bullies targeting autistic people. Some bullies and aggressors actually use bullying, harassment and covert aggression as a way to make themselves look better in contrast to alleged socially impaired targets(or whoever happens to be convenient enough). No need for softer people skills, emotional intelligence and actual social intelligence, when you can look good the easiest way and others tacitly accept it.

    3. Some thoughts here. Insight is rarely an all-or-none thing, especially when it comes to self-awareness. This is more true of “neurotic” personalities, who’ve repressed so much that they don’t know themselves very well, whereas the most seriously character disturbed generally know who they are but don’t care. All that said, there are some (definitely not the majority) narcissists who really don’t see not only what they’re doing but how they come across to others. The spectra of character disturbance and self-awareness are such that it’s not always easy to simply categorize. How to tell? Well, that’s probably another article or two.

      1. We sure keep you busy Dr. Simon!! :) Thank you! I’ll also take this opportunity to wish you a Happy Holliday Season, Merry Christmas, or what ever applies!
        Sincerely, Puddle

      2. Can someone be assertive and still be as self-aware as aggressive personalities are? I do find it worrying that some people are so much more at advantage, because they don’t anything distasteful enough to deny.

  4. You know what Dr. Simon……..I don’t know that I really did know right from wrong as a teenager. In regards to alcohol, i took to it like a duck to water and my parents actually provided it at parties (high school). I was in my prenatal element with alcohol (FASD) and used to be quite the beer bandit as a child…..hit and run……my parents thought it was cute. I drank a fifth of tequila in about 40 minutes before a concert in the 9th or 10th grade and threw up all over the place and myself. there was a woman police officer in the bathroom at the concert and she called an ambulance. I had to have my stomach pumped. I newer had one consequence imposed on me! NOT ONE! My mother’s biggest concern was that her parents would find out because it was in the paper under emergency runs, listed only as “ill”.
    we just did what we pleased for the most part, my parents had NO control over either me or my brother (who became a multiple felon and is clearly a sociopath).
    It was not until I quit drinking the first time around the age of thirty that my feet finally hit somewhat stable and solid ground and any gains I’ve made in my character development have come through a very frustrating process of what feels like two steps forward, one step back.
    I did not know I had FASD until this past year, I had terrible learning disabilities in school that no one bothered to diagnose……
    What I’m saying is that within certain parameters I knew wrong from right but not all the way across the board. And I’m from a fairly (outwardly) respectable family, at least on the right side of the tracks. My parents were not equipped to raise a dog, let alone two adopted children….one with FASD and one a budding sociopath!

    Sorry for the ramble here but I have had people say before that I was responsible for ALL of my poor choices in the past no matter how old I was. She even said that I was responsible for taking some LSD that someone gave me telling me it was speed. No……that person LIED to me. And because he LIED to me, I did not have a clue the kind of risk I was taking. Yes, I knowingly took A drug but it was something that was so common in my age group……alcohol, same……pot, same…..basically I just went with just about anything back then and oddly enough…….I NEVER EVER wanted or would even consider taking LSD!!!

    I knew that certain things were not acceptable to my parents but there were no consequences………so the line between right and wrong, good and bad,,,,,,everything was so blurry! So many contradictions………
    As often as this is said…….I can not even begin to tell you how true this saying is for me, but I AM lucky to be alive a hundred or more times over. TRULY miraculous in SO many ways!

    My brother………his life pattern was set in motion before he was even 10….maybe 8 or younger (no mind for ages). by the time he was a teen it was pretty much written in stone. He has been in trouble his whole entire life. VERY sad. That is why I wonder sometimes how much power a person has to change after a certain point. He has faced every conceivable consequence as an adult and nothing seemed to take hold.
    I will say this, he has somehow managed to tone it all down somewhat within the last 5-10 years (as far as I know) but I can’t trust him as far as i can throw him.

    1. The ease of change is influenced by a variety of factors: constitutional predispositions, the degree of ingraining of early learning patterns, etc., but it’s always possible, given sufficient effort and the right structure for therapeutic intervention. And there are a lot of reasons why the typical “consequences” don’t seem to necessarily prompt change. I’ve addressed in some past articles but it’s a topic well worth further discussion. Remind me to post on it sometime.

      1. No offense Dr. Simon, but the “IF’S” you mention are very big “IF’S” given the nature of the problem and the limited understanding in the therapeutic profession. Personally I think a LOT of it comes down to luck and timing.
        I have NO explanation why my life turned around to the degree it did. It’s part miracle as far as I can figure! Also timing, luck and perhaps…..divine intervention. In my brother’s case, it would seem that every time there was an opportunity for something or someone to be a positive influence on the outcome of his character and life, the ball was not only dropped but dropped and kicked off the field. It’s VERY EVRY sad. I do hop that the “change” I’ve seen in his life over the last 5-10 years is permanent but there is still HUGE room for improvement. HUGE.
        I have had people come into my life that had a very positive and helpful influence and i don’t know why.

        1. Absolutely no offense taken, Puddle. And I’m well aware of the “odds” involved here. And I’m also very aware of the “miraculous” circumstances that sometimes come into play when a person with all sorts of disadvantaging predispositions beats the odds. Then again, if the whole enterprise were easy, there’d be absolutely no merit in the achievement!

          Probably won’t be monitoring comments very much until Dec. 27.

          1. The very weird thing in all of this is that between my brother and me, it’s ME that had a significant and very real Strike against me! I’m the one with FASD! Undiagnosed and unaddressed until the past year! His bio-mother couldn’t stand alcohol! BUT, there is a possibility that his bio-father was disordered, he was a very successful business man.

            It was always about HIM and HIS ADHD and “attempts” to straighten HIM out. Meanwhile, I was failing out of school, and embarrassing our family because I had undiagnosed learning disabilities (among other things). But they never did anything about it. I was in a rehab center one time (as an adult) and we had a family week that my parents came to. After I got done reading my laundry list of how alcohol had negatively affected my life since I was about 11 or 12, the councilor asked my parents if they had any concept that any of this was going on. My mother’s reply was…..”well, I always suspected it was”. Suspected?? LOL! When your child ends up in the ER with alcohol poisoning that could have killer her, in the 9th or tenth grade? It’s kind of a red flag! I had already gained plenty of momentum with drinking by that point, as much as one can while living under their parents roof. It really is a long gory story and sometimes I struggle to believe it’s my story I’m telling.

          2. I don’t know how many people would wake up to what’s going on when things are going really bad. Perhaps some people wish even then that things sort themselves out.

  5. I called cock-and-bull on that news story. I view it as a plausible way of minimizing accountability on the person who initiated such a drunk collision. People’s denial of legal consequences and social impacts is getting to be predictable to the point of believing we’re living in a quasi-idiocracy from time to time.

  6. J, the totality of my background is very overwhelming and it’s odd to think that although I wasn’t “”happy”” in my family situation, I really didn’t understand how bad it was until I stopped drinking the first time around age 30. Even though i didn’t maintain complete sobriety until two years ago, something about my initial step away from alcohol changed my entire perspective on my life. I honestly feel that after that, even when I had gone back to drinking…..the forward movement continued, even if it was at a slower pace than it would have if i had remained completely sober (obviously!).
    Something about my self awareness was opened up and things just kept falling into place. I became WAY more responsible and self determined and somehow developed an ability to challenge myself where before I gave up on just about anything at the drop of a hat.
    It’s all very hard to explain and to understand myself but I know what happened because the person I used to be seems like a stranger to me now. It’s very hard for me to even come to grips with the vague memories I have from back then, as if it were an entirely different life time or a dream of some sort. SO bizarre!

    1. Rest assured there is still plenty of room for improvement. That was one of the things I had such a hard time dealing with with Spathtard,,,,,,,he made it sound like I thought I was perfect but NEVER offered me any explanations on how he thought I should be different or improve myself. He would say……..”it’s not like I like everything about you Puddle, but the closest he ever came to telling me WHAT he didn’t like or wished was different about me was to say that he didn’t make me happy. So many mixed messages. He told me I don’t know HOW many times what a wonderful person I was, that I was sexy, beautiful, smart, that I made him happy…..on and on and on and on…….but the proof is staring me right in the face now because he is nowhere to be seen…….what is apparent is that his drinking life is what matters to him not me! That is where he is and that is what he is investing himself in,,,,,not us, not me. NO MATTER WHAT HE SAID! Quote: “This relationship and you are WAY more important to me than drinking Puddle”. Well, he proved that to be an untruth MANY times during the relationshit and certainly now.

      It’s ALWAYS going to be actions that speak louder than ANY words can. He never even knew who I really was. WHY? Because he never cared who I really was…….as long as he got whatever it was he was after in his involvement with me……that’s all that mattered. His desires, game, illusion……whatever. He didn’t want to know me and he CERTAINLY didn’t want me to know him. Now I know why. Pathetic

  7. Dr. Simon: “If ever there were a prime example of how socio-cultural factors influence the prevalence and degree of character disturbance in our young people, the case of Ethan Couch, (prominently featuring his “enabling” parents, the power of wealth and privilege, and the folly of a confused, misguided, and truly dysfunctional justice system), is it!”

    Well how about this – the affluenza teen and his mother have disappeared. It was on the news yesterday – they have vanished into thin air. I think he was seen on a YouTube drinking. I’m not sure, but whatever he broke his probation orders.

    What a profoundly dysfunctional mess. When money talks abusers walk.

    Dr. Simon: “You broke the law, and you paid the price. It was that simple. Nothing is that simple anymore.”

    That’s the frustrating thing about life today – everything is a rocket-science – nothing, absolutely nothing is simple anymore!

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