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Parents, ward off 'childhood affluenza'

Flu season has arrived, but some social scientists worry about another virus that's usually at its height between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's called affluenza.

Authorities describe affluenza as an unearned feeling of entitlement for luxuries, and it's becoming an epidemic, especially among children.

The primary symptom is overconsumption. John de Graaf, author of "Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic," describes affluenza as:

• A fever for shopping and spending.

• Swollen expectations about material needs.

• Decreasing immunity to the assaults of advertisers.

• Self-concepts defined by brands of clothing.

• A rash of debt by the time the victim leaves college.

Like the more standard flu, affluenza can be a minor inconvenience or a more dangerous infection. In many cases it manifests itself in a whiny, selfish child with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. But in some cases, that self-indulgent child grows into a self-indulgent adult looking for a free ride through life. Fortunately, when it's caught early enough, affluenza can easily be cured.

Warding off affluenza
Don't let affluenza affect your family and friends. Find out what it is and how to prevent it from hitting your wallet.
1. The disease
2. The cause
3. Treatment and prevention

The disease
Kids often define their identity with possessions, and these items become more important than relationships. This attitude progresses with the accumulation of more toys as years go by.

Childhood affluenza is not based on wealth. It's based on the values learned while children are growing up. When children from wealthy households are infected, the presence of the money becomes a disincentive for them to lead productive lives, says Wayne Rivers, president and co-founder of the Family Business Institute in Raleigh, N.C.

Jon Gallo provides seminars and workshops to his clients at The Gallo Institute, in Los Angeles, a company that focuses on raising children in an affluent environment. He's also come across less-affluent troubled families, some with incomes ranging between $40,000 and $50,000 a year. Even in these families, Gallo says, children request everything they see advertised and expect to get those $200 athletic shoes and designer jeans.

The cause
Scientists point to two primary causes: omnipresent marketing and parents who spoil their kids.

They fret over the children's exposure to advertising and marketing. Children are bombarded from the moment they get up until they go to bed, says Susan Linn, director and co-founder of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. The primary message, she says, is that acquiring things will make you happy.

"From school, television and numerous other sources, children see about 40,000 advertisements a year," says De Graaf. He describes affluenza as an airwave-borne epidemic.

The average 12-year-old child in the United States spends 48 hours a week exposed to commercial messages, De Graaf says, and only one and a half hours in significant conversations with their parents.

Some teenagers are getting messages from Hollywood, a place they look to for the latest trends and gadgets.

Carol Clark, a high-net-worth asset manager for the Lowry Hill wealth management firm based in Minneapolis, says children aren't just reading about the extravagant lifestyle. They get warped by reality TV shows such as "The Simple Life" on E! and MTV's "My Super Sweet 16."

Next: "Parents use gifts as a substitute for something that's priceless ..."
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