Failure to Launch

I often hear jokes made about “failure to launch.” In fact, it has become so prevalent that people have accommodated this term as just something some families need to go through. In fact, young adults who are experiencing this developmental crisis do not find anything funny about it. Nor do their parents, who struggle to find some way of getting their grown child to experience adulthood in a positive way.

People love to laugh at the family who still has a twenty-something living in their basement. The jokes may be about him becoming a “professional gamer,” or about how spoiled he or she has always been. Parents laugh it off, while secretly they are worried about what they can do to help their child make it to the next step in life.

At the heart of this crisis is the lack of internal motivation to achieve something meaningful. College may seem like someone else’s dream. Work seems depressing because it lacks meaning or personal reward. The person does not know what to commit to, or what to begin to focus on in their life. When I speak with these clients they tearfully explain the agony of feeling lost, stuck, and confused. They feel left behind by friends. They search for a path that they fear they will never find.

The depression and anxiety that grows from their internal conflict can be debilitating. They lack any faith in their ability to live as an independent adult. The simple risks that society has learned all young adults must take seem terrifying to these individuals as they “fail to launch.” They require a focus on not only career or academic goals, but also social goals. It is critical to consider the importance of building an ability to think independently, to reach out to others, to build faith in taking action, and to be planful and resilient. These are people who need strength, confidence, and direction.

Many psychologists and writers have looked at failure to launch as a developmental curiosity. What is causing it? What psychological processes are at work? What has the family done wrong? I prefer to look at it much more behaviorally. This is a person suffering, and in need of perspective and skills. There is anxiety to overcome, and motivation to be found. The most helpful first step is understanding how to turn fear into positive motivation. Then, apply that motivation to a rational plan. This is the opposite of being frozen with anxiety. This is the opposite of feeling lost and hopeless.

I recently read an “expert” say that these individuals simply need to find a passion. I found that to be ridiculous. Most of us did not wait at home until a passion filled our hearts. We went out in the world in hopes of finding a passion. We met others. Learned from them. Explored interests and career options and SHAPED OURSELVES into what we became. Having someone wait for a passion to consume them feeds into their fear that they may never find what they need to be a successful adult.

Therapy can help in reducing anxiety and seeing the world as a manageable place. This means building an understanding of how you take control of the barriers in your mind and the barriers in your relationships and daily behaviors. Momentum grows with action. And planful and deliberate action can overcome depression and anxiety. Oftentimes the answer is learning basic self-regulation skills to create movement towards independent living; and cognitive-behavioral strategies to begin healthy goal setting and value-driven action.

There is nothing funny about failure to launch. But there are some effective strategies to move people suffering from this crisis in the right direction.