In many ways, Zach is a typical 19-year old. He plays video games with his friends online, chats with girls on social media, and binge eats pizza and junk food. He also spends the bulk of his day getting high on marijuana and avoiding his mother’s increasingly apprehensive questions about college application deadlines.
You see, despite having graduated high school over a year and a half ago, Zach has yet to make any real decisions about his future. He has very little interest in entertaining his parents’ goal for him to attend college. He often wishes he had extra money to buy video game upgrades or cool clothes, but he doesn’t really want to work to earn it. He’d much rather stay under his parents’ roof where he has few responsibilities.
Zach’s situation may seem to work well as the basis of a 21st-century comedy film, but, in reality, the exact same scenario is being played out in households across America. What’s happening here?
Failing to Launch?
The predicament in which Zach and his parents find themselves may be described by the popular term “failure to launch.” But, what does failing to launch mean, exactly? Psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, Dr. Robert Fischer explains this phenomenon as encompassing “the difficulties some young adults face when transitioning into the next phase of development.”
Traditional adolescent to young adult development is marked by an exploration of the world that gives meaning and fuel to one’s own journey and passions. Young adults who successfully transition have asked and answered questions like “What do I like doing? What am I good at? Who do I want to be?” These questions guide them into making more mature decisions and developing the skill sets of autonomy.
However, young people with failure to launch syndrome never gained the sense of independence and confidence to handle adult responsibilities. Why?
What Causes Failure to Launch?
There are a number of reasons your adult child might be failing to reach certain developmental milestones.
Helicopter parents, who are prone to micromanaging and intervening in their children’s lives, may prevent them from successfully launching into adulthood. Many variables are at play here: being fearful of the dangers present in the world, not trusting others with their children’s well-being, and having fewer children, thus, focusing more attention on them. Behaviors that many parents view as protection can often inhibit children from developing autonomy and result in delayed adulthood.
Societal and Economic Factors
As a society, Americans are starting careers later, getting married later (or not at all), seeking a personal residence later and starting families later. Plus, graduating with higher amounts of debt yet with less marketable degrees also contributes to some young people staying under their parents’ roof longer.
Mental Health Concerns
Undiagnosed learning and attention disorders may also factor into a young person’s failure to fully transition into an independent adult life. A child may have managed relatively well within previous highly structured academic environments. However, college requires a great deal of discipline and independent study for which they may be lacking or incapable. Furthermore, untreated mental disorders such as depression or anxiety can also influence a young adult’s transition.
Couple with potential mental health problems is the tendency to self-medicate. A teen or young adult may be experiencing difficult life circumstances such as feeling rejected by peer groups, romantic partners, or dealing with social anxiety. In order to numb the pain, they may start using drugs or alcohol, which only serves to further delay their transition into adulthood.
How Can I Help My Child?
Parenting a child with failure to launch syndrome can be confusing. You may wonder “Are we enabling him? Should we practice ‘tough love’?” In addition to being concerned with your adult child’s development and functioning, their presence in your household may be causing marital discord, financial instability, and an abundance of other issues. Luckily, there are steps you can take to assist your adult child in preparing for takeoff into true adult independence. Here’s how:
- Identify and treat mental illness or substance abuse. If you suspect that your child may be suffering from a psychiatric disorder like depression or anxiety, encourage him or her to see a doctor. The same goes for substance abuse. If your child is like Zack—spending a great amount of time getting high—he’ll have difficulty making the necessary decisions to transition into adulthood. Getting adequate treatment in the form of therapy or medications for underlying psychiatric or substance abuse issues is a vital step towards a healthier future.
- Expect them to contribute to the household. Set the expectation that, although your child may not be working, that he or she is still required to complete chores and share in the responsibility of your family home. Doing so makes living off Mom and Dad less desirable and also teaches you to stop enabling the situation.
- Get them professional assistance. Career or life coaching may be beneficial for young adults who are uncertain about how to choose an occupation, apply for college, or handle adult responsibilities such as managing money. Coaching can also foster independence and confidence in young adults with low self-esteem or social anxiety.
- Offer support and reassurance. Having a secure foundation from which to grow from is essential for young adults hoping to transition. Although you don’t want to enable your child, you do want to send the message that you are there for him or her. Set clear expectations and boundaries but also be sure to say “I love you, I believe in you, and you can count on me to be here for you.”
If your child is failing to successfully launch into adulthood, it’s important to take action now. The sooner you acknowledge that your child is “stuck,” the sooner you can help them overcome the barriers of transitioning to lead satisfying and productive lives.