The story of Ethan Couch is a sensational one. Could a child really be so unaware of the consequences of his decisions because his parents gave him everything he wanted, never told him “no,” or set any boundaries for him? The judge in his case certainly thought so, and his defense of “affluenza,” has been the subject of much debate, discussion, and media attention.
Involving Ethan in Adult Matters: Adultification
As a juvenile defense attorney, I have followed this story closely and am especially interested in the concept Dr. Michael Flynn describes as “adultify.” Flynn conducted a social study of the family back in 2006 when Ethan was nine years old and his parents were going through a divorce. He drew the conclusion that young Ethan’s parents had “adultified” him before he reached middle school. He explained that the parents had allowed Ethan to “become overly involved in adult issues and decisions.” This finding stemmed from several observations, including the fact that his mother said she was abused by Ethan’s father, and Ethan was her “protector,” sleeping in a separate bed in her bedroom. Additionally, Flynn explained that during one of his visits, the police had been called to the home and Ethan was unfazed by the situation. Flynn picked up on this problem early on, and it appears that Ethan’s “adultification” only continued through the years, as he allegedly drove himself to school at the age of 13, and at age 16, was living alone in one of his family’s homes.
Despite being treated as an adult during his impressionable years, Flynn described the child as patient. Instead of showing off a motorcycle and other possessions to the social worker, he shared his bedroom and the outdoor pen that the family kept their dogs. He also told Flynn he just wanted to “feel secure.” I think these details are so telling. Children truly desire boundaries. I see this frequently with the kids that I work with, and also as a parent. While it may not always seem like it at the time, kids want to be disciplined. Their brains are not equipped to make decisions like ours. By setting boundaries and telling them “no,” we are giving them security, that feeling that Ethan strongly recognized and desired. By “adultifying” and not parenting their child, I believe Ethan was set up to fail.
Leaning from the Tragedy
While this case is a tragedy, I hope parents can understand how better parenting could have made a difference. It is certainly hard being a parent, but setting boundaries and disciplining your child does make a huge difference. I encourage parents to seek the friendships of other parents to bounce ideas and help one another, to read books on the topic, and to consider counseling, both for the parent and child in some instances. I hope the contrast of 9 year old Ethan who wanted security with the reckless 16 year old who killed 4 people, can serve as a wake up call and example for parents.
Kathryn Boortz has a passion for working with youth and their families. She is the founder of Boortz Law, a law firm that focuses on juvenile defense.