WOULDN'T IT BE great to be 16 and filthy rich, with a life of luxury cars, beautiful people, spectacular homes and extended holidays stretching ahead of you? Well, not necessarily, as it happens. History shows us that children who inherit fortunes don't always fare that well in life. Take 'poor little rich girl' Barbara Hutton, who inherited the Woolworth fortune on her 21st birthday and allegedly died broke, miserable and alone with a trail of failed marriages and substance abuse in her wake. Or John Paul Getty, the son of one of the richest men in the world at the time, whose money couldn't save him from a life dogged by addiction, tragedy and depression. It's well-documented that extreme wealth can breed boredom, lack of ambition (what do you strive for if you already have everything?), a suspicion about new friends and a chronic lack of self-worth that can lead to substance abuse, depression and psychological disorders. Not something that most of us will ever have to worry about for our children, surely? According to American psychologist Madeleine Levine, you may have to think again. In her book The Price of Privilege (HarperCollins US), Levine argues that a generation of children who aren't rich are growing up with exactly these feelings of emptiness and despair. These children are from 'affluent' families, she says, meaning those with incomes above US$120,000 (HK$900,000) a year. These children go to private schools, participate in extra-curricular activities, get on a plane once a year to go on holiday with their family, can afford the latest computer games and new clothes every now and then, and will probably go to university. If it sounds familiar, then take heed, because Levine says that children from these families have significantly higher rates of eating or anxiety disorders, substance abuse, self-mutilation and depression than any other sector of young society. These conclusions were drawn from extensive research triggered by a 15-year-old patient of Levine's whom she described as bright, personable, highly pressured by her adoring but frequently preoccupied wealthy parents ... and very angry. During one session at Levine's practice in Marin County California, the girl rolled up the long sleeves of her top to reveal the word 'empty' carved into her arm with a razor. Looking back through her appointments book later that day, Levine realised that she was seeing many teenagers who were similarly unhappy, whose parents were upper-middle class and who clearly loved and devoted a great deal of time to their children. After speaking to many of her colleagues, she realised that this wasn't unusual. Privileged children all over the country were heading off the rails, but nobody had looked at this issue, assuming that children with advantaged backgrounds were doing fine. Levine says the trigger is the pressure that successful, wealthy parents exert on their children to excel. They send them to the best schools, closely monitor their grades, ferry them to extra-curricular activities and expect them to shine. 'This constant pressure to meet unrealistic expectations means that a kid's sense of self isn't developed from the inside out, it's developed from the outside in,' says Levine in a recorded interview on www.eyeonbooks.com . These parents, who have often worked hard for their money and value it greatly, shower their children with material things and reward success with money or gifts, honestly believing that they have to get their children to achieve in any way they can, or they won't be able to cope in an increasingly competitive world. 'They want outstanding children,' says Levine. 'The problem is there is a misunderstanding about the process by which outstanding children are created.' So-called helicopter mothers will hover over every aspect of their children's lives, she says, making all their choices for them, when what the child really needs is time to hang out, to learn some life skills from their mother, to make some decisions for themselves and learn from their mistakes. In other words, character-building time. Part of the problem is that these highly pressured children aren't given any responsibilities at home. A mere mention of a test in the morning will get them out of sitting down for dinner with their family, or tidying their room. Wendy Mogel describes the impact of this lack of responsibility in her book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee (Penguin), which has sold well in the US. She says parents expect the world from their children at school and then compensate by expecting nothing at home, leaving children with lives that are too hard in one sense and too easy in another. As a result, they don't learn to be independent and don't cope well when they leave home. But is this just an issue for wealthy American families, or could it be a global phenomenon? Tommy Chan Hing-moon, a clinical psychologist in Hong Kong, says he's treating the same kind of problems. 'There is an increasing trend of teenagers complaining about a lack of direction and sense of emptiness,' he says, and agrees that this may be caused by too many challenges, increased competitiveness and high expectations of success. In addition, some children in Hong Kong are given too much money and have little concept of effort and reward. Some have everything done for them - children as old as nine being dressed by one of several domestic helpers - and grow up unable to look after themselves or take responsibility in their lives. A common problem in Hong Kong is that children don't spend enough time with their parents and lack moral guidance, which plays a significant role in the problems that Chan sees in his clinic. Both parents often work and lead busy lives, leaving others to give their children guidance and advice. 'The affluent families I observe think it's OK to send their children to the best schools and then they'll be taken care of in all areas of their lives,' he says. But, as Levine says in her book, a good school isn't the answer. The school you go to has no correlation to your happiness in later life and little relation to the amount of money you make. Parents ought to spend less time worrying about academic achievement and more focusing on the things their child is naturally good at, she says. 'What we need to see is the child in front of us - not the child we wish we had, not the child our neighbour has, not our fantasy child, but that astounding child that stands in front of us with all the things they're good at and all the things they need help with.'