WESTBROOK — The outrageous “affluenza” defense in the case of Ethan Couch – the Texas 16-year-old who got 10 years’ probation after he struck and killed four bystanders while driving drunk – has ignited some conversations about teen behavior and appropriate consequences.

As the CEO of a company devoted to improving family relationships, I follow these discussions closely, as they are important to our mission.

My hope is that this case will remind us all of the vital role parents play in helping our children become responsible, productive citizens and that when parents fail to meet these responsibilities, there can be dire consequences.

If nothing else, this case can serve as a teachable moment for parents and as a call to action for intervening when negative behaviors arise.

Face it – every day, everywhere, too many teens will make bad choices, usually involving some combination of cars, booze, drugs and sex.

This risk-taking behavior is a normal but concerning period of human development.


Fortunately, most teens walk away unscathed or with relatively minor consequences – a hangover, a night in jail, a few bumps and bruises or a curable sexually transmitted disease.

Parents can reduce their child’s risky behavior by modeling the right behaviors, monitoring their child’s behavior, not rescuing their child from consequences and holding their child accountable when appropriate.

Even so, there is no guarantee that your kids, no matter how effective your parenting is, may avoid inflicting serious damage on themselves or upon others.

The reality is that bad choices and ineffective parenting are not related to economic status.

The affluenza defense – which says that because of his family’s wealth and permissiveness, Ethan Couch never learned the consequences of his behavior – is a distraction from rather than the root cause of this recent court case.

I’m reading that the Couch family was anything but ideal.


The parents didn’t effectively institute consequences, didn’t model appropriate law-abiding behavior and may have rescued their son from the consequences of his actions.

This is a recipe for … well, a 16-year-old who’s much more likely to binge drink, drive and cause a fatal accident.

Many are questioning the sentence of a year of residential treatment and 10 years of probation for Ethan Couch.

I think it’s good that we are offering treatment instead of prison.

I hope we offer this option to all youth offenders, regardless of ability to pay.

I hope that the treatment center is an accountability-based treatment program that reinforces personal responsibility and holds Couch strictly accountable for his behavior, making him earn even the most modest privilege and work hard to make amends for his crime.


The early reports of a luxury treatment center are concerning, to say the least, and if true, our juvenile justice system has failed as badly as his parents.

After all, the overarching goal of treatment is supposed to be sustained change in behavior rather than merely detaining him for a set period of time.

Given my decade in this business, I know that parents universally struggle with unruly teen behavior, feel an inability to set limits and don’t effectively teach necessary problem-solving skills.

Parents, regardless of economic background, need to be empowered to set up a culture of accountability in their home that will teach their child how to listen, respect authority and make good decisions.

Children of empowered parents are less likely to engage in risky behavior and less likely to end up facing tragic consequences.

Let us all hope that families everywhere learn from this tragedy and work toward attaining an effective parenting style for the benefit of all of us.


The late James Lehman, co-creator of our Total Transformation program, often reminded us that it is never too late for any family to improve relationships and that every child is worth saving.

Lehman was the perfect embodiment of that lesson: He struggled as a child, a teen and a young adult and rose above these behaviors.

He devoted his professional life to counseling at-risk youths and their parents.

As we begin the new year, I truly hope that the legacy of James Lehman serves as an inspiration to families everywhere to keep trying to build better family relationships – one family at a time.

— Special to the Press Herald

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