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Although parents have many responsibilities, the greatest one of all is to equip our kids with the skills they need to grow into successful, independent, and happy adults. However, when we find that our kids’ transition into adulthood isn’t happening the way we hoped, that responsibility can suddenly become a terrible burden. Whether it’s around the end of high school, during college, or some time in the years after, many young adults struggle to take the next step towards independence. In fact, a 2020 Pew Research study found that 52% of 18-29-year-olds were living at home with their parents - the highest percentage since the Great Depression! While a global pandemic and high inflation may have roles to play in stalling our young adults’ progress, the truth is current events only accelerated a trend that’s been developing for over two decades. So why are more young people struggling to become independent than ever before?
And though it's true some may be temporarily living at home for financial reasons while pursuing a degree or beginning a career, there’s another subset of young adults living with their parents for an entirely different reason - they haven’t taken the necessary steps to establish themselves independently. In other words, they’ve failed to launch.
This term has been circulating for years now as a way to succinctly capture the phenomenon of young people struggling to become fully independent adults. Clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Messine describes a failure to launch as when “it’s time to leave the nest and everyone is ready for the transition except for them - they sputter and stumble instead of striving forward.” And while some struggle is completely normal and healthy during this turbulent chapter of life, it’s a different beast entirely when a young adult seems to have no external responsibility, purpose, or direction. So how can we tell the difference between normal growing pains and a failure launch? In this article, we’re going to walk through the following 5 essential things parents need to know about failure to launch syndrome to help their young adults find their footing in the world. (Note: this condition is not an official psychological or medical diagnosis; we use the term "syndrome" solely as a descriptive term that's commonly used to frame a failure to launch situation.)
Hopefully, in answering these questions, you’ll gain the critical insights you need to get your own young adult kid’s life back on track so they can grow into an independent, successful, and - most of all - happy adult.
In the simplest terms, failure to launch is an extended pause in the typical developmental process of a young adult. A young person who has failed to launch may have no job or degree; they may also appear to have few goals or aspirations, leading to aimless, sluggish days on the couch or in front of a screen at home. When this happens, parents may wonder if they’ve done something in their parenting that has inhibited their child’s growth, or simply worry that their kid is just downright “lazy.” While those could be factors, it’s important not to play the blame game, and, instead, approach the issue from a solution-oriented perspective.
Who it affects: Although the associated issues of no goals or direction, low motivation, etc. can happen at any age, failure to launch syndrome is really about young people transitioning into adulthood, which generally occurs between the ages of 18-29 and sometimes in adults who are 30-years-old and beyond. Both men and women can have a failure to launch, but it tends to be a bit more common in young men.
Another term often used to describe a failure to launch is “Peter Pan Syndrome,” which generally refers to a resistance to growing up or an unreasonable desire to remain a child. Although there are some elements that make “Peter Pan Syndrome” similar to a failure to launch, the terms are not interchangeable. Neither failure to launch nor “Peter Pan syndrome” are considered to be mental illnesses, although mental illness may play a contributing role in their appearance.
There are a number of factors that can contribute to a failure to launch, but the big 7 are a lack of self-management skills, parent enablement, milestones/rites of passage, substance use disorders, mental health disorders, learning disorders, and motivation issues. It’s possible to have any combination of those 7, but here’s a brief breakdown of how each one on its own can contribute to a failure to launch.
The central problem in failing to launch is avoiding taking on the responsibilities that come with a full-time job or education. For many, this can stem from lacking the self-management skills (also called Executive Function) necessary to meet those responsibilities. This includes skills like time management, organization, task initiation, emotional regulation, planning and prioritizing, etc. When there’s a chronic difficulty in those skill areas, it can be hard to meet demands and expectations, or create realistic plans for the future. (This problem is often called Executive Dysfunction, which you can learn about here.
It’s never easy to see our kids struggle. As parents, it can seem productive to find opportunities where we can relieve some of their burdens. However, it’s also important to make sure our role is not protecting them entirely from discomfort. Shielding our kids who are young adults from uncomfortable obligations such as household chores, doing their own laundry and food preparation, or paying rent and car insurance only serves to maintain their holding pattern in childhood.
Graduations are an exciting time, but they can also be a scary one, too. Fear of the future or the inability to plan ahead can put many young people into situations where they avoid confronting the stress of what’s next - until suddenly months or years pass and they find they’ve lost their sense of purpose or direction. It’s also possible they tried searching for jobs or applying to colleges but with no success. In any case, having no responsibilities and being able to do anything you want each day can perpetuate a cycle of more of the same - especially after an unsuccessful school or job search experience - and can contribute to a failure to launch.
Issues around substance use can be a significant hindrance at any point in life, especially during the turbulence of young adulthood. If substance use is central to your child’s failure to launch, it’s important to seek out a licensed professional who treats substance use disorders.
Mental health problems are often central to a failure to launch. Whether they cause the initial inaction, perpetuate it, or both, mental health issues need to be prioritized. Left untreated, mental health issues can make it difficult to succeed in school, hold employment, or find a job. Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health disorders and are often made worse by a failure to launch. If mental health is a core issue in your child’s life, it’s essential to begin addressing those right away.
Learning disabilities and differences like ADHD, ASD, and dyslexia can make school or work much more difficult and cause or exacerbate a failure to launch. Untreated ADHD, in particular, is one of the most common reasons we find the young adults we work with who are stagnating after high school or in college. If you suspect your child has a learning difference, an important first step is to receive a diagnosis from a neuropsychologist or other qualified professional and build a treatment plan. If your child already has a diagnosis, then revisit your treatment plan and have a candid conversation about whether or not it’s working.
A lack of drive to set and achieve goals can form the basis of failure to launch. If motivation is a central issue, it’s important to ask why someone’s not motivated. Is it because of anxiety or depression? Do they not know how to achieve what they want? The truth is, it’s relatively rare for someone to intrinsically be “lazy,” so trying to accurately pinpoint the root cause of motivation issues can give many clues about what needs attention.
Beyond the obvious red flags, like chronic unemployment or not pursuing further education or training, there are a number of other important signs to look out for in order to spot a failure to launch. We’ll first look at the most typical signs of a failure to launch. If you find yourself noticing some of these in your child, then it’s important to start considering your support options we’ll be exploring further on in this article.
These signs may indicate your child could be in a failure to launch situation.
When you should seek help for a failure to launch largely depends on your circumstances. Although the above examples may be more typical failure to launch signs, left unchecked, they can worsen into something more severe that requires immediate support. Some of the signs that your child may be experiencing a more severe case of failure to launch include:
If you find yourself checking off any of the above signs while considering your child’s current situation, then you’ll want to seek help as soon as possible. Young adulthood is a period of life when people are vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders - all of which can be catalyzed or worsened by a failure to launch. Even so, if you find that your child fits more into the “typical” scenario, support may be an important proactive step - after all, why let the problem fester? In either case, what kind of options are worth considering to conquer a failure to launch?
If a person is failing to launch at 30-years-old and hasn’t transitioned into adulthood, it may be time to get help. This can be frustrating for both the adult child and parents, but it’s important to remember that it’s possible to overcome this challenge and still live a fulfilling life.
The first step is to identify the root of the problem. There are many reasons why a 30-year-old might fail to launch, including mental health, financial situation, parent enablement, and more, but it’s crucial to get to the source of the issue. Once you’ve identified the cause, you can explore the support options discussed below.
There are a number of support options that can help your child overcome their failure to launch. The three we’ll be focusing on are 1) Expectation and Boundary setting, 2) Executive Function Coaching, and 3) Therapy. Depending on your family’s situation, you may need just one of these options, all three, or even something more. For example, if substance use disorders are a critical part of your child’s failure to launch, then a specialist who focuses on treating substance use will be an important building block for a plan forward. Beyond that, these three should be an effective place to start.
If you find your child is in the early stages of a failure to launch and isn’t showing any of the severe signs, then a good place to start is your own parenting approach. As mentioned earlier, parents can sometimes enable inaction unintentionally by not setting clear expectations or boundaries. First, parents should begin to set clear expectations that feel appropriate and fair for their child. These expectations set the guard rails for what you need them to do if they’re going to live with you. For example, if they’re going to live at home, you may want to set an expectation that they’ll be helping out with chores, cleaning dishes, cooking meals, etc. You may ask that they look for part-time employment, keep a reasonable sleep schedule, or have a plan for when and how they’ll be finding an apartment of their own. Whatever this looks like for you, this conversation needs to happen collaboratively - not just you “telling” them what they need to do. Setting time to sit down and talk about these things allows for both parties to agree on what seems fair and reasonable and which expectations are mutually agreeable. In this conversation, you’ll also want to consider what happens when they don’t meet those expectations and go outside your established guard rails. These will be your boundaries and they could range from losing privileges such as access to a car to being forced to move out in more extreme circumstances. Whatever they may be, make sure they are firm and clear and stick to your agreement if your agreed-upon expectations are violated.
If your child has problems stemming from ADHD and/or challenges with those self-management skills I mentioned earlier, then Executive Function coaching can be an effective choice. Executive Function coaching helps young adults build these skills with meaningful, small changes week-to-week that snowball into large transformations. Over time, the process of coaching aims to rebuild that sense of confidence and purpose to the point where they can take ownership of their skills with lasting independence.
If your child is struggling with their mental health in any way while struggling to gain independence, or you’ve found yourself checking off one or more of the severe failure to launch signs, you’ll want to get them an accredited therapist and counselor - one who ideally specializes in early adulthood. Cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy are some effective treatment approaches for anxiety and depression, but there are many other options depending on the nature of your child’s challenges. Whichever one you find to be the best fit for their needs, the important step is finding someone your kid can trust and who will help with the core mental health issues that are holding them back. You can learn more about that search and evaluation process here.
Failure to launch syndrome can be a difficult experience to navigate, but with the proper understanding, assessment, and support for the issue, years down the line you may look back and find that it was simply a bumpy start to a bright future. Hopefully, this article has given you the pieces you need to move forward and see your child thrive in adulthood as you’ve always wanted them to.
Could ADHD be a central reason for your young adult's failure to launch? If so, watch our free on-demand webinar and learn the fundamentals you need to know to successfully manage an ADHD diagnosis.
Sean Potts is the Marketing Specialist at Beyond BookSmart and a recent graduate of Ithaca College’s Integrated Marketing Communications program. As a former coaching client and intern at BBS, Sean has spent the better part of the last ten years witnessing firsthand the positive impact Beyond BookSmart's mission has on transforming students’ lives. Jackie Hebert is the Director of Marketing for Beyond BookSmart. Whether it's managing our websites, overseeing our social media content, authoring and editing blog articles, or hosting webinars, Jackie oversees all Marketing activities at Beyond BookSmart. Before joining Beyond BookSmart in 2010, Jackie was a Speech-Language Pathologist at Needham High School. She earned her Master's degree in Speech-Language Pathology from Boston University, and her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
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