Suniya S. Luthar, Ph.D.
Suniya Luthar is Foundation Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University and Professor Emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College. After receiving her Ph.D. from Yale University in 1990, she served on the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry and the Child Study Center at Yale. Between 1997 and 2013, she was at Columbia University’s Teachers College, where she also served as Senior Advisor to the Provost (2011-2013).
Dr. Luthar's research involves vulnerability and resilience among various populations including youth in poverty, children in families affected by mental illness, and teens in upper-middle class families (who reflect high rates of symptoms relative to national norms). A mother of two grown children herself, her recent scientific focus has been on motherhood; studies aim to illuminate what best helps women negotiate the challenges of this life-transforming role, and to apply these insights in interventions toward fostering their resilience.
BS Child Development (Honors), Lady Irwin College, Delhi University, India, 1978
MS Child Development, Lady Irwin College, Delhi University, India, 1980
PhD (Distinction) Developmental/Clinical Psychology, Yale University, New Haven, 1990
(For complete list and links to articles, please see cv)
Research (for copies of earlier papers, click here)
Infurna, F.J. & Luthar, S. S. (In press). The multidimensional nature of resilience to spousal loss. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Infurna, F.J., & Luthar, S.S. (2016a). Resilience to major life stressors is not as common as thought. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11, 175 –194. DOI: 10.1177/1745691615621271
Infurna, F.J., & Luthar, S.S. (2016b). Resilience has been and will always be, but rates declared are inevitably suspect: Reply to Galatzer-Levy and Bonanno. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11, 199 –201. DOI: 10.1177/1745691615621281
Luthar, S.S. (2015). Mothering mothers. Research in Human Development. 12, 295–303. doi: 10.1080/15427609.2015.1068045
Luthar, S. S., Crossman, E. J., & Small, P. J. (2015). Resilience and adversity. In R.M. Lerner and M. E. Lamb (Eds.). Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science (7th Edition, Vol. III, pp. 247-286). New York: Wiley.
Luthar, S.S., & Ciciolla, L. (2015). What it feels like to be a mother: Variations by children’s developmental stages. Developmental Psychology. http://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/dev0000062
Luthar, S.S., & Ciciolla, L. (2016). Who mothers Mommy? Factors that contribute to mothers’ well-being. Developmental Psychology, 51, 1812-1823. http://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/dev0000051
Luthar, S. S., Barkin, S. H., & Crossman, E. J. (2013). “I can, therefore I must”: Fragility in the upper-middle classes. Development and Psychopathology, 25th Anniversary Special Issue, 25, 1529-1549. PMCID: PMC4215566
Luthar, S. S. & Ciciolla, L. (2016). Why mothers of tweens – not babies – are the most depressed. Aeon Opinions, April 4.
Luthar, S. S., & Schwartz, B. (2016). Sometimes ‘poor little rich kids’ really are poor little rich kids. The Great Debate, Reuters.com, January 5.
Luthar, S. S. (2014). Girls Interrupted: Why colleges shouldn’t recruit athletes before high school.
American Psychological Association Public Interest Directorate blog, February 27,
Luthar, S. S. (2014). Let kids face consequences. Raising Arizona, May 2014.
Luthar, S. S. (2013). The problem with rich kids. Psychology Today, Nov-Dec, 62-69, 87. http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201310/the-problem-rich-kids
VoiceAmerica.com (podcast), Jan 12, 2017. Middle school moms --The most stressed of all.
Southern California Public Radio (podcast), Jan 11, 2017. Moms of middle schoolers have it hardest.
Slate.com (podcast - @12:45 minutes in), Jan 5, 2017. Mom and dad are fighting: The Hardest Age.
NPR, Dec 29, 2016. Being mom to a middle schooler can be the toughest gig. (2nd, "Best of NPR")
Arizona Republic, Dec 2, 2016. Pushy parents who prioritize GPA are actually hurting their kids.
Times of India, Dec 1, 2016. Why you should stop pressuring kids over grades.
PsychCentral, Dec 1, 2016. Parents should not put too much pressure on kids.
Bloomberg Businessweek. Nov. 21. Affluenza Anonymous: Rehab for the young, rich, and addicted.
Wilton Bulletin, Oct 9, 2016. The serious risks affluent teens face.
The New York Times, Sept. 26, 2016. When a spouse dies, resilience can be uneven.
KJZZ Public Radio (podcast), Sept. 20, 2016. Why our resilience may rely more on relationships...
El Confidencial, Spain, Sept. 15, 2016 'Affluenza', la polémica enfermedad…
Global News, Canada, Sept. 9, 2016. Extra-curricular activities vs. play: which is better for kids?
ASU News, Aug 25, 2016. Military moms sought for special ASU groups.
Wall Street Journal, Aug 24, 2016. When to let children quit.
Psychology Today, Aug 16, 2016. Is empty nest a myth?
612 ABC Brisbane, Australia (podcast), July 29, 2016. Money, wealth, and expectation.
The Academic Minute (podcast), July 15, 2016. Mothers of Tweens.
NPR, June 6, 2016. Think mothering young kids is hard? Get ready for even tougher times.
Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2016. Moms’ middle-school blues.
Washington Post, March 25, 2016. Researchers have a new theory about how tragedies affect us.
Science Daily, March 19, 2016. Natural resilience to life stressors is not as common as thought.
The Times, UK, March 19, 2016. Stressed, depressed, lonely and anxious. Is your teenager OK,
The Washington Post, Jan 7, 2016. No such thing as 'affluenza'? Not so fast.
The Dallas Observer, Jan 7, 2016. Affluenza is a big surprise..are you kidding me?
NPR To the Point, Dec 28, 2015. Students and the pressure to perform.
The Times of India, Nov 22, 2015. The poor, little rich kids of Silicon Valley schools.
The Atlantic, Nov 17, 2015. The Silicon Valley suicides.
WebMD Radio, Nov 10, 2015. Being a Mother: Who takes care of the caregiver?
KInstantly U, Nov 2, 2015. This study struck a chord with moms,
Science Daily, Oct 29, 2015. Who mothers Mommy?,
Huffington Post, July 7, 2015. Is it possible to raise happy kids in affluence?
CNN, Jan 8, 2015. Believe it or not, there are challenges to growing up wealthy,
Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, April 9, 2015 (Open Session video). Fragility in affluent families and implications for parenting research and practice.
Conducted within a developmental psychopathology framework, research by our group revolves around the construct of resilience and positive youth development (Luthar, 2003; Luthar, 2006; Luthar & Brown, 2007; Luthar, Cicchetti, & Becker, 2000). Core questions of interest are: What are the processes that help some children do well in spite of diverse stressors in their lives? Across various spheres of development -psychological, emotional, interpersonal, and academic- how can children maximize their potentials and achieve competent, productive trajectories over time?
Currently, we are focused on four major programs of research, each described more in detail below. The first involves middle- and high-school students growing up in relative affluence; across diverse samples, these youth have shown greater substance use and distress relative to national norms. In the second group of studies, we are attempting to understand what the experience of motherhood means from a developmental perspective. The third area encompasses prevention trials to foster resilience among at-risk upper middle class mothers, via a manualized group intervention, Authentic Connections Groups, an intervention based on the on the Relational Psychotherapy Mothers' Group program we previously tested with at-risk, low-income mothers. The final area of our work involves longitudinal follow-up of children of women with major psychiatric illnesses, to understand salient pathways to resilience and vulnerability.
The culture of affluence - School-based research
This program of research has its roots in a 1999 study involving two samples of 10th graders - those from low-income, urban families and high-income, suburban families. Findings showed that on several fronts the wealthy children fared more poorly than did their low-income counterparts. Specifically, they reported much higher levels of cigarette, alcohol, and marijuana use as well as significantly greater anxiety; in addition, suburban girls reported startlingly high levels of depression (Luthar & D'Avanzo, 1999).
In subsequent research, we considered whether the problems seen among wealthy 10th graders might be seen among younger children as well, and also began to explore possible causes of such distress among these apparently "privileged" youth. Our results showed that affluent sixth graders seemed to be relatively untroubled, but seventh graders did show some beginning signs of distress, again, chiefly in relation to overall substance use, anxiety, and depression among girls. Exploration of possible reasons for distress showed that two factors seemed to be implicated; one was excessive pressures to achieve, and the other was isolation (physical and emotional) from parents (Luthar & Becker, 2002).
These findings led to the initiation of a long-term follow-up study of a new cohort of about 350 suburban middle school students, whom we have assessed each year since 1999 when they were 12 years old on average (the New England Study of Suburban Youth; NESSY). At their last assessment, participants in this cohort were 27 years old. Analyses of the NESSY cohort through the high school years, along with data from other upper middle class communities, have recurrently shown elevated problems compared to national normative samples particularly in alcohol and drug misuse, and also in internalizing symptoms (depression and anxiety), self-injurious behaviors, and random acts of delinquency (Luthar & Barkin, 2012; Luthar, Barkin, & Crossman, in press; Luthar & Goldstein, 2008; Yates, Tracy, & Luthar, 2008).
We are currently focused on longitudinal analyses of the NESSY cohort to illuminate trajectories of maladjustment and competence, as well as major risk and protective processes, from middle childhood through young adulthood. Of special interest are (a) pathways in alcohol and drug misuse, and (b) gender-specific processes, such as pressures for “effortless perfectionism” among the women. We also continue to evaluate students in different upper middle class schools and communities across the country, further examining generalizability of findings and considering additional, potentially salient risk and protective processes in their adjustment.
Motherhood: Developmental phenomenology
In developmental research, women are typically considered in terms of their behaviors as mothers - rarely in terms of their own personhood. In an internet-based survey we have explored how women feel about their different roles -- not only as mothers, but also as spouses, friends, workers (in and out of the home), individuals with various hopes and fears -- and how they cope with the challenge of balancing multiple roles. We obtained data from over 2,200 mothers, with excellent completion rates and high reliability and validity of the data. These data reveal significant risk and protective processes among well-educated, upper-middle class mothers as compared to others.
Early findings based on these data have shown that, as for children, supportive close relationships are critical for the well-being of their mothers (Luthar & Ciciolla, 2015). Analyses showed that four constructs had particularly robust links with mothers’ personal adjustment: their feeling unconditionally loved, feeling comforted when in distress, authenticity in relationships, and satisfaction with friendships. Partner satisfaction had some associations with personal adjustment outcomes, but being married in itself had negligible effects (Luthar & Ciciolla, 2015). In a second study, we examined mothers’ well-being as a function of children’s ages (Luthar & Ciciolla, 2016). In this case, our findings uniformly showed curvilinear patterns by children’s ages, with mothers of middle-schoolers faring the most poorly, and mothers of adult children and infants faring the best.
Authentic Connections: Fostering resilience among mothers
Drawing upon a previously developed intervention for at-risk mothers, the Relational Psychotherapy Group (details below) and in collaboration with colleagues at the Mayo Clinic, AZ , we examined the effectiveness of a relationally-based intervention for another group of at-risk mothers: Medical care providers with young children. Between 30% and 40% of US physicians reportedly experience professional burnout, with women at significantly greater risk than their male counterparts. For women physicians in particular, a major factor implicated in burnout is depletion from multiple caregiving responsibilities. The Authentic Connections Groups (ACG) intervention is aimed at the development and crystallization of close, supportive, and dependable relationships for these women, both within the professional setting as well as in everyday lives outside of work. The program involves group sessions for one-hour per week, across a three-month period, with session topics described in a detailed manual. Initial results are encouraging, showing greater gains among intervention than control mothers; a manuscript on these findings has been submitted for publication. In the meantime, we have also successfully completed the ACG intervention with another group, military mothers, in collaboration with ASU's Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement. We continue to explore other community-based settings in which we might offer and evaluate this low-cost, potentially high-yield program to foster resilience among highly stressed mothers -- for their own sakes and for the children for whom they serve as primary caregivers.
Children of mothers with major mental illness
Another area long-term, longitudinal study involves resilience and vulnerability among children of mothers with major psychiatric disorders such as drug abuse, and depressive or anxiety disorders (Luthar & Sexton, 2007; McMahon & Luthar, 2007; Yoo, Brown, & Luthar, 2009). At baseline (Time 1), we assessed maladjustment, competence, and risk and protective factors in a sample of 360 eight to eighteen year old children and their mothers; about half of the mothers had diagnoses of cocaine/opioid dependence or abuse. At the first and second follow-ups (T2, T3), offspring were 12-22 and 16-26 years old respectively. Sample retention has been high, at about 80% across three waves. In current longitudinal analyses, we are examining risk and protective indices based on multiple informants and methods, including not only behavioral assessments but also biological and genetic ones (e.g., Barbot, Hunt, Grigororenko, & Luthar, 2012; Bick et al., 2013).
As mentioned above, another extension of our work with at-risk mothers is psychotherapy research. In the mid 1990's, we developed a parenting group intervention for low-income, substance abusing mothers, the Relational Psychotherapy Parenting Group (RPMG). This intervention was based on insight-oriented therapy and reflected specific recognition of the challenges unique to women and mothers. Randomized trials showed that mothers who received RPMG fared significantly better post- intervention than did those who received treatment as usual in their methadone clinics and those who received drug counseling (Luthar & Suchman, 2000; Luthar, Suchman, & Altomare, 2007). While confirming the importance of the supportive interventions for these mothers, findings highlighted the crucial need for continued support for these extremely vulnerable mothers following the active phases of the intervention program.