How Families Can Cope with Failure to Launch

by Talley Webb, MA, CRMC, of Journey to Better

“Failure to launch” is a term that refers to young adults who remain in the home of their parents or caregivers,  for a longer period of time than what is traditionally expected. There are many reasons young adults struggle to maintain independence. 

Unfortunately, youth experiencing failure to launch are often misunderstood, even by loved ones and friends. What may seem like simple lack of motivation and unwillingness to take steps toward independence is usually something much more deeply rooted and difficult to conquer. 

How Failure to Launch Starts and How it Presents

As with any situation involving human behavior, there is no singular presentation for failure to launch. Some young adults may have attempted to go to college but found that the pressures of school were overwhelming, while others may have become derailed by mental health or substance abuse. Many people in this situation have completed college and returned home, only to find it difficult to maintain a job or budget for rent and other expenses. There are also young adults who never left home after high school ended, paralyzed by fear about going out on their own or underemployed and not feeling capable of self-sufficiency. 

Young adults in this type of situation may present in a variety of ways. They may seem withdrawn or sullen, irritable, or lacking self-confidence, or conversely, it may seem as though they are ok and not experiencing any emotional distress, but simply can not take forward steps toward their future. Whether they are an open book or fairly guarded about their emotions, it is likely that the young adult who remains at home is experiencing underlying complicated feelings about it. Many people in situations like this feel guilty, ashamed, or embarrassed about living at home, even if they do not regularly share that sentiment. Defensiveness and reluctance to talk about the situation is another common trait in young adults who are living in the family home for an extended period of time. 

Possible Causes and Symptoms to Watch

Depression and anxiety are common among young adults who have had a difficult time successfully navigating the bridge to adulthood. Symptoms such as chronic fatigue, sleep disturbance and changes in eating habits may be outward signs of depression, while feelings of worthlessness, suicidal thoughts and feeling numb or detached are internal experiences. Anxiety symptoms can also range in intensity and expression; shakiness, shortness of breath and avoidance of others can be outward signs of anxiety, while feelings of dread and constantly expecting the worst are internal symptoms. 

Young adults who are having a difficult time with independence may also have something more significant going on with their emotional health. Symptoms of thought or mood disorders may manifest during late adolescence to early adulthood. These symptoms can be scary and unnerving for many who experience them. Some young adults may avoid sharing this information due to fear of what might happen or simply wanting to avoid talking about it. 

Lack of progress and a feeling of purposelessness can be self-perpetuating and can create a vicious cycle in which young adults feel increasingly hopeless and dependent. It is important for these difficulties to be addressed to break the pattern and set a new path toward a life of meaning and self-confidence.

Solutions and Ideas for Support

In situations like this, the young adult who is experiencing failure to launch needs a safe environment to talk about symptoms and brainstorm solutions. Whether it is a situational depression or a more severe and persistent mental illness that requires medication management, it is crucial that young adults have the support they need to make sense of these challenges and work through them in a safe, non-judgmental environment.

Often the best solutions for young adults and their families experiencing failure to launch is a multi-prong approach. Talk therapy with a licensed professional is an important part of the work, but to fully embrace the issue and prepare for change, services such as life skills, connection to career professionals and intern/apprenticeship options, college exploration and trade school classes can be potential resources. There are specialty programs dotted across the country that bring together multiple resources tailored specifically to the young adults needs. Being with other young adults facing similar struggles, with life coaches, mentors, internships and job opportunities coupled with therapeutic support can make all the difference.  

Parents who have young adults living at home long-term often become frustrated and resentful, which is a normal reaction to a complex situation. As you help your young adult identify the challenges and work toward a solution, be sure to look after your own emotional health needs. It is not unreasonable to want to see progress and independence in your adult children; when reality is not reflecting your hopes for them, it is discouraging to say the least. Try to remember that your young adult may also feel discouraged, depressed, and guilty about their situation. 

Working toward a solution collaboratively and getting outside support can bring positive results and help mend tensions in your relationship. Engaging with appropriate programs and professionals can be an exciting path toward independence and adulthood.

For questions or concerns contact TCA, or Hire a Therapeutic Consultant.

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