Failure to launch and how to help young adults thrive
The emotional burden for parents of these “failure to launch” young adults – and for the young adults themselves — is incalculable: lost dreams, increased discord in the family, fears for the child’s future safety and security. The financial costs– multiple college failures, increased mental health expenditures, legal fees, and a decade or more of room and board costs for the child at home beyond 18 years — are enormous as well. All this adds up to diminished financial stability of these families, forced unanticipated and extended employment, and reduced options for security, leisure and investment in later years.
The Consequences of Failure to Launch
The consequences of this codependent relationship can be devastating. When a young person gets stuck in this developmental state, he will lose all intrinsic motivation to move through life and find a place in the world.
And this is only contributing to our mental health time bomb. The number of young people suffering from depression has doubled since the turn of the millennium, and low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence are both increasingly common.
Without the experience of fending for themselves, many Millennials are struggling to become emotionally and mentally healthy adults. To escape this trap, young adults need to build an identity that doesn’t rely on parental support.
How to Launch
Overcoming that obstacle isn’t easy, but breaking the process down into these four actionable steps makes it a lot less daunting:
1. Treat the cause, not the symptoms. As every doctor knows, treating the symptoms of a disease might relieve some of the pain, but it won’t get rid of the problem. If the root cause of a young adult’s failure to launch isn’t dealt with, there’s no chance that he will overcome it.
Parents have their part to play in this process, but they should resist the temptation to shepherd their child toward independence. Doing so only helps keep that young adult in his comfort zone. It’s only by facing the challenge head-on that a young adult can earn his independence.
2. Have the confidence to make mistakes. Most of the students aren’t making poor decisions — they’re failing to make decisions in the first place because they’re afraid of the consequences of choosing the wrong option.
But failure is an important part of the learning process, and not making any mistakes simply because you’re afraid to make one is the worst mistake possible. Thomas Edison made numerous unsuccessful attempts to invent the light bulb, but when asked how it felt to fail so many times, he said that he hadn’t — there were just 1,000 steps in the process.
3. Build a support system. No man is an island, and independence can’t be achieved in a day or a week. It’s a process, and some days can be harder than others, but it’s important not to get disheartened by these setbacks.
A proper support network will offer guidance and encouragement at these times and serve as a barometer for tracking a young adult’s progress toward independence. Remember: Independence doesn’t have to be learned independently.
4. Move forward step by step. Simultaneously trying to tackle every aspect of the problem can result in stress and anxiety. Instead, young adults should break the process down into steps so it’s easier to track progress and reflect on past success.
Momentum builds with each successful step. With that momentum comes an improved focus on the challenges ahead and increased confidence that the ultimate objective is achievable. The next step is always the most important one.
Failure-to-launch syndrome can’t be ignored, and there’s no use in hoping that it will go away on its own. Young adults and their parents need to take active and progressive steps toward a solution and shift from a caretaking relationship to a caregiving one.
Further info on “failure to launch”:
Dr. Eli Lebowitz PhD of Yale Child Study Centre sees FTL (failure to launch) as a “system” that involves both the young adult and parents. Although one part of the system may be resistant to change, it is still possible to change the whole system through its other parts, in this case the parents. His recent podcast on FTL highlights the ways that clinicians can support parents dealing with this problem. These tips can work for parents, too.
Tips for Managing FTL
- Stop accommodating. This is obvious. So obvious, in fact, that we think Trip’s parents are fools for hiring a surrogate girlfriend to lure him out of the house, when what they really need to do is stop feeding, taking care of, and cleaning up after him. Which is a great segue to the second tip…
- Don’t judge. The parental accommodation we see in the movie is what FTL looks like to most outsiders. Young adults with FTL and their parents are used to being harshly judged by other family members, friends, helping professionals and society: ‘What he needs is a good kick in the pants.’ Or ‘Just stop babying him.’ If only it were that easy! FTL is often caused by a serious mental health condition, such as a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or agoraphobia. Judging the person with FTL and his family minimizes the paralyzing fear he experiences and the real distress that parents feel. After a police intervention, forced hospitalization, assault, or suicide attempt (yes, it gets that bad), parents can be understandably cautious about doing anything that might cause another crisis.
- Anxiety is a multi-person system. Parents and their adult children with FTL often feel trapped in a pattern of anxiety and accommodation that only leads to more anxiety and accommodation. Dr. Lebowitz calls this the “protection trap.” The hopeful message in his approach is that strengthening or changing one part of the system can have an impact on the whole.
- Form an alliance. The therapeutic alliance between patient and healer is an essential part of effective treatment. But what if the person with the problem refuses treatment? In cases of FTL the parents may be highly motivated to change the situation, but lack the knowledge, skills, and tools to make a difference. By forming an alliance with those most willing to change, parents and professionals can work together to change the system of anxiety and parental accommodation within the family.
- Take small steps. Most parents would like to see their children gain the confidence and skills to move out of the house and establish themselves independently. But to the young person with severe anxiety such a monumental goal can seem completely unattainable. Parents can help by setting expectations for much smaller realistic goals. Can the young adult with FTL start doing her own laundry? Maybe the first step is to get her to pick the dirty clothes off the floor and put them in a laundry basket.
- Actions speak louder than words. This tip goes hand-in-hand with #5. Parents who tell their daughter with severe anxiety to get a job by June or move out of the house, are not just setting her up for failure.They are backing themselves into a corner when June comes around and she still isn’t working. Parents should set realistic expectations and be prepared to follow up with actions. Not washing a young adult’s dirty clothes unless she puts them in the laundry basket is a natural consequence that doesn’t put anyone at risk.
- Open up the system. When a young person’s mental health disorder rules the home, the stress can be more than the family “system” can bear. Parents can strengthen the system by adding new parts: neighbors, friends, and relatives who can support the parents and reinforce the message that change is necessary. Seeking help from a professional is another way to open up the system.
- Communicate openly and honestly. Changing the family system of anxiety and accommodation is liable to produce many negative feelings in the young person and frequently provokes outright resistance. That’s why it’s important to explain the reasons in advance of the change, preferably in writing as well as at a family meeting (other parent supporters such as aunts and uncles, grandparents, and family friends can be a great help to parents at this stage). Messaging should focus on concern for the person with FTL, not on the wish to be free of the burdens of parenting.
- Encourage hope. Making accommodations to young adults with FTL may make them feel safer and more comfortable in the moment. But it leaves them without hope that their situation will improve. In fact, it usually results in the problem getting worse. Gradually reducing the accommodations while helping young adults with anxiety face their fears sends a hopeful message that change is possible.
Don’t be disheartened. There is hope and even though it does seem that the world is becoming increasingly competitive and anxiety and depression are on the increase, maintaining a positive approach can make a huge difference. Whilst this isn’t always possible (leave for a while, take a walk or do something else if you feel resentment as a parent) to be positive and encouraging, try to find possibilities and ways forward as much as possible.
I have witnessed many ‘failure to launch’ youths finding their way eventually, some just develop at a different pace. Don’t give up, don’t lose faith.
Photo by Gwyrosydd