Parents, educators and other community members nearly filled the Wilton High School Clune Center the evening of March 5 to hear the results of Dr. Suniya Luthar’s study on Wilton students and the challenges they face. They learned that students believe their parents and educators are often at cross-purposes. Adult behavior on local Facebook pages isn’t helping either.
Luthar — a nationally acclaimed researcher, foundation professor of psychology at Arizona State University, professor emerita of Columbia University’s Teachers College, and mother of two grown children — has been studying pressures and challenges faced by youth in high-achieving schools, and often affluent communities, for more than two decades.
In October 2016, Luthar visited Wilton and shared an overview of her research on Westport students, which showed they had elevated levels of depression and substance abuse that most people associate with poverty.
Shortly after her visit, Wilton Youth Council’s vice president, Genevieve Eason, said, “We began to explore the possibility of her returning to survey our student body — we wanted to hear directly from our kids.”
This past November, more than 1,200 Wilton High School students, across all four grades, participated in an extensive survey conducted by Luthar, which examined adjustment outcomes like depression, anxiety and physical symptoms, rule-breaking and aggression, alcohol and drug use, as well as positive attributes like empathy, compassion and altruism.
As at all high-achieving schools she has studied, Luthar said, rates of substance use among Wilton teens are “elevated compared to national norms.”
“Not so much marijuana, but certainly alcohol and drinking to intoxication,” said Luthar, whose study also revealed “troubling elevations” in rates of clinically significant symptoms among Wilton students.
Luthar found “anxious-depressed” to be the most pronounced internalized symptom among Wilton students and that:
- Almost 30% of Wilton students have “above average” levels of internalizing symptoms, compared to the 7% national norm.
- Almost 20% have “much above average” levels, compared to the 2% national norm.
“I don’t think I’ve spent so much time on a single presentation for any school as I have done for this one,” said Luthar, “and the reason is because I was so alarmed by this.”
Having lived in Westchester County before, Luthar said, she knows “the culture” in this area.
“When you’re hearing all these comparisons, you can think about them relative to the other schools, but maybe the more important thing to think about is [relativity] to national norms — and that is what’s worrisome to me.”
According to Luthar, levels of externalizing symptoms among Wilton teens are also elevated, but to a lesser extent.
“There is some sense of uneasiness in the community — there’s something that is not quite right,” she said. “Maybe it’s about substance use; maybe it’s about internalized depression and anxiety.”
Luthar said her job is to help the community “understand the magnitude of the problem” so it can figure out what needs to be done.
When asked about the seriousness of repercussions if their parents were to discover them exhibiting rule-breaking behaviors, Wilton teens reported perceiving less serious reactions from their parents when it comes to drug use than to things like rudeness and delinquency.
Luthar said this is something she sees “again and again — especially in the Northeast.”
“These are things we sometimes want to say, ‘Maybe they’ll outgrow it,’” she said, “but drug and alcohol use often matter.”
Parent containment is “critical to examine” because “some parents in high-achieving contexts tend to ‘bail out’ their children when facing discipline,” said Luthar, adding that it’s “very important” for parents to be “vigilant.”
She also said that children’s perceptions of their parents’ laxness when it comes to drug use correlates with levels of substance abuse, and parent containment is associated with diagnoses of addiction at age 28.
Parents and school
Luthar said her study revealed that Wilton students, like their parents and teachers, are “not on the same page” — that “their parents are on one side and their school and teachers are on the other — and [they’re] caught in the middle.”
Of all she’s studied, Luthar said, “this is the one thing that has come up that has taken me by surprise.”
“This is a message that I don’t often see,” she said, “but it is a message that I’m seeing here.”
Parent and community involvement is about schools welcoming families and adults also supporting the schools, she said, and parents and schools each have unique associations with student adjustments — “it’s not one or the other.”
“When kids feel like their parents and teachers are not on the same team,” said Luthar, “that’s an issue.”
She encouraged the Wilton community to “think about and talk to each other about how can the parents and the administrators and teachers perhaps work — with kindness and respect — with each other.”
Adult role models
“All of what we do as grownups matters to our kids,” said Luthar, who emphasized the importance of adults being good role models.
Echoing that sentiment, Wilton Youth Council President Vanessa Elias asked parents to think about “what we’re role-modeling on Facebook.”
To those who wonder how young people know about the way adults in the community treat one another, Elias said, the answer is social media.
“They’re on 412 and the other Facebook pages,” she said, “and that’s the easiest place for all of us to start — to not engage and not to post and call names.”
Luthar said it was “the fourth or fifth time” she had heard about the Wilton 412 and Wilton 411 Facebook groups. “I have no idea what they are, but I know they’re not good,” she said.
“The kids have access to it and they’re seeing that there is blaming and name-calling and adults putting each other down. I have one suggestion: Let’s stop doing this. … Find a way to come together.”
To learn more about Luthar and her research, visit suniyaluthar.org.