FAILURE TO LAUNCH SYNDROME
It can be both heartbreaking and frustrating for parents to witness as their child struggles to leave home and live independently. Parents may wonder if they’ve done something to inhibit the child’s growth or if their son or daughter is just being lazy. While both of these scenarios could be true, there are many influencing factors of failure to launch syndrome. The underlying cause will likely determine the kind of help your child needs to build and sustain a life of his own. This article will review the definition of failure to launch, causes and influencing factors, and help you assess the level of help you need.
WHAT IS FAILURE TO LAUNCH?
Failure to launch syndrome is not a true diagnosis (nor is it a term we particularly like at OPI), but rather is a common way to describe a young adult who is struggling with the transition to adulthood. It can be defined as an inability to leave home and support oneself, regardless of the underlying cause. Young adults struggling with failure to launch (or failure to thrive) may appear to be “stuck” or not maturing in an age appropriate way.
Most young adults find the rites of passage into adulthood enabling and encouraging. (Think: attending college or having a full-time job.) However, for some young people these changes can cause regressive behaviors. At times, the adult child has attended college and may have a bachelor degree, but has found themselves back in the parent’s home. The transition to adulthood can be especially difficult for a young man.
Many young adults will need extra support at some point during the transition to adulthood. This may include a stint at home with parents, but that does not mean all young adult children living with their parents are “failing” to launch. Failure to launch syndrome can only be considered after a long duration of dependency from the adult child, without notable progress or motivation.
Failure to launch often has the following symptoms:
- Poor work ethic
- Low distress tolerance
- Low levels of motivation
- Low levels of persistence
- High expectations of others without reciprocating
- Failure to take responsibility
- Lack of vision (for the future or long-term goals)
- Lack of skills needed for adulthood (basic cooking and cleaning skills)
A young person struggling with a failure to thrive may also experience diminished self-esteem and poor emotional self-regulation. Common times for a child to begin to display failure to launch symptoms are after high school graduation, at any point during a child’s time at a postsecondary institution, and after obtaining a bachelor degree.
CAUSES AND INFLUENCING FACTORS
There are myriad factors that could contribute to failure to launch syndrome. For some young adults the cause is environmental, while for many others it is mental health related.
ENABLING AND INFLUENCING FACTORS
Parenting styles, the family experience, and the parent-child relationship can all be factors in the development of Failure to Launch. Overprotective parents tend to raise kids who display a lack of autonomy. When a child is not faced with age-appropriate challenges during the different child growth stages, they miss out on opportunities to develop confidence. Well-meaning parents are eager to make their child’s life easy and remove challenging situations. As a result, an adult child may hold on to an unhealthy attachment to their parents and the ease of living the parents provide. While the family experience and the parent-child relationship may be factors, this is not the case for all children.
Entitlement, isolation, and unhealthy family systems are common symptoms of both failure to launch syndrome and addiction. That means that when an addiction is present, failure to launch may go unnoticed.
Addiction can also have a causal effect on failure to launch. Young adults suffering from a chemical addiction are more likely to experience diminished financial, cognitive, and emotional stability. Those suffering from a screen addiction lose healthy social and coping skills over time, as well as valuable time. These additional distractions and complications in the life of an addict make it even more difficult to get or stay on his feet.
Regardless of the addiction type, everyone suffering from an addiction lives an unmanageable life. The increased anxiety and emotional turmoil these young adults experience lead to a decrease in commitments to education, career, personal health, and social activities.
Mental illness is among the most common causes of failure to launch. Leaving the safety of home is cripplingly scary for a young adult with depression, anxiety, ADHD, or who has experienced trauma. As much as they may desire to be independent, their mental health keeps them home.
Young adults who have experienced the loss or damage of a significant relationship are more likely to have trouble living independently. In particular, individuals with a personality disorder, an attachment disorder, or bipolar disorder often struggle to leave home.
ASPERGER’S & AUTISM
The thought of juggling adult responsibilities is daunting for most adolescents—and even for some successful, fully-functioning adults! This overwhelm can be even stronger for adolescents and young adults on the autism spectrum. Young adults with Asperger’s syndrome (AS) or high functioning autism (HFA) are especially prone to avoid the transition to adulthood. Young adults on the spectrum are emotionally young for their chronological age. For many, this means lower motivation to move out, attend school, or get a job. When young adults with AS or HFA feel overwhelmed, they may exert control by engaging in something with which they’re familiar. Often, this “something” is being a child. Staying in a familiar place and behaving in a familiar manner is a way for them to have power over this very frightening life transition. The connection between the autism spectrum and the struggle to leave home is familiar to many parents. Some parents have found that they can act as their child’s “coach” to successfully lead them into adulthood. Other families need more intense, external guidance to help their child with this challenging transition.
HOW BAD IS IT AND WHAT KIND OF HELP DO YOU NEED?
Failure to launch looks different in each young adult. While some may simply need a few more boundaries at home, others may need intense treatment outside the home. We’ve outlined some common behaviors and suggestions to help each.
Beginning with her first day of preschool, Nicole loved learning and excelled academically. Her love of cats drove her decision to become a veterinarian—a goal she never strayed from as she got older. In junior high she discovered a passion for basketball. She worked hard on her club teams and made varsity on her high school team each year. Her junior year of high school, college recruitment letters began flooding the mailbox. Many of these letters promised academic scholarships, and she also got calls from college basketball coaches inviting her to come visit their school and meet the team.
But in a club game early senior year, Nicole tore her ACL. She couldn’t play for her high school that year and decided not to pursue a college basketball career, knowing that her chance of returning to her previous skill level was slim.
Without basketball, Nicole became depressed and her grades started to slip. When it came time to choose a university, Nicole opted to attend University of Virginia and live at home, instead of Virginia Tech where she planned to attend. Nicole passed her first semester with mediocre grades and spent much of her time at home on her iPad. Her father encouraged her to find a part time job at a vet clinic, but Nicole was resistant.
After her freshman year, Nicole’s parents told her that she would need to start paying rent to live at home. Nicole found an on-campus job and her grades were back to straight As. She moved in with a coworker the summer before junior year and was able to pay rent on her own. She focused on the prerequisite courses for veterinary school and began preparing her grad school applications.
HOW TO HELP
- Hold boundaries. To live at home, they should be required to contribute to the household. They can contribute by getting an education, having a job, paying rent, or caring for others in the home.
- Don’t coddle. Allow your child to take responsibility and learn to face the hard parts of growing up.
- Consider therapy. If a mental health issue seems to be holding her back, look for a therapist who specializes in the area they are struggling.
At three years old, Brandon’s uncle sent him an Arizona State Sun Devils jersey, and there was no going back. Brandon would be a lifelong ASU fan.
Although he struggled with high-functioning Asperger’s, Brandon was a happy kid with plenty of friends and good grades. He had a propensity for math and excelled in even the most challenging high school math courses.
Finally, it was time. College applications were sent out and Brandon anxiously awaited the response from his dream school. The day he received the letter stating that he would be a Sun Devil was the happiest of his life. And to top it off: his best friend Steve was accepted to this out of state university, as well.
His first semester was euphoric. The crippling heat of late summer in Arizona was assuaged by college football games. Brandon was dedicated to his classes, got along with his roommates, and made a friend or two. He finished the semester with As and Bs and went home for the holiday break. Everything seemed smooth and perfect.
Three weeks into the second semester, Steve called Brandon’s mom. Brandon had not been attending most of his classes. His roommates reported that he stayed in his room playing video games all night and sleeping all day. He wasn’t responsive to his mom’s requests for him to go to classes, spend time with friends, or see a psychologist. So Brandon was pulled from his dream school and found himself crying on a flight back home.
At home, his behaviour didn’t improve much. He found a part time job, but barely managed to stay employed. His father was upset by his laziness, and his mother didn’t understand what had gone wrong. Why was her near-genius, 19-year-old son hiding in his room playing video games?
It was clear that Brandon wasn’t improving and wouldn’t be ready to go back to ASU in the fall. Brandon agreed to stay home for another year and attend therapy. His family slowly started seeing improvements. He began eating dinner with the family, getting to work on time, and adjusted his sleep schedule back to normal. He reapplied to his dream school and agreed to continue seeing a therapist at ASU.
Though not always easy, Brandon was able to maintain much-needed structure when he returned to school. His parents proudly watched as their son graduated with a degree in accounting and helped him move into his Phoenix apartment near the firm where he would be working. Through therapy and his own dedication, Brandon was able to overcome failure to launch and move forward successfully.
HOW TO HELP
- Therapy. A young adult displaying this level of resistance to school or work will need to address the underlying causes in therapy. They may be successful in outpatient therapy, or may need a more intense therapeutic program.
- Use encouragement. Expressing frustration and anger with your child will likely make them feel worse and increase failure to launch behaviors. Use loving boundaries and encouragement to help them move forward.
- Structure. Help your young adult find the right balance between staying busy and having down time.
Ryan was warmly welcomed home after his college graduation. He graduated with honors and a degree in media studies and had completed a year-long internship in Grenoble, France. His parents were eager to spend a few weeks with him at home before he started his career and moved into a new apartment.
But finding a job was not as easy as anticipated. Months went by and Ryan had stopped sending out applications. He began to engage more in the drinking habit he had acquired at college. His family saw less of him, and when they did he was cold and hostile.
After a year, his parents knew that Ryan wasn’t just experiencing a setback: he needed help. They asked him to find a job—any job—to get him out of the house for a few hours a day, and convinced him to see a therapist. Ryan felt unable to apply for more jobs, and this drove him further into depression and drinking. He rarely left his room and spent most of his waking hours on the computer. Knowing that he needed more help than they could give, his parents arranged for him to go to a 30-day addictions center. After a lot of arguing and ultimatums, he agreed to go.
Ryan returned home and fell back into the same pattern. He became more hostile over time and didn’t seem to be making any progress with outpatient treatment or short term placements. His therapist recommended a long-term treatment program to help Ryan recover and get back on his feet.
HOW TO HELP
- Find a treatment program. When a young adult’s symptoms are this persistent for an extended period of time (over a year or two), the chances of them getting better without significant therapeutic intervention is unlikely.
- Don’t walk on eggshells. It’s common for families to try to appease a young adult with severe failure to launch. Inadvertently, this makes it more comfortable for them to stay home, while simultaneously draining the rest of the family members.
- Self-care. A struggling adult child is stressful and draining. Take time for yourself and seek support as you need it.
How OPI Can Help
For all OPI Living Programs, we begin helping young adults who might be associated with a Failure to Launch Syndrome diagnoses in this way:
- Thoroughly learn about and understanding this individual, his/her family and their world and then…
- Address all issues at hand utilizing a multi-focal treatment approach including:
- Psychological/psychiatric components;
- Psychological/educational components where tutoring, study hours or neuro-psycho-educational testing may be scheduled;
- Psycho/social components in which participants engage in individual life coaching or guided social activities ranging from Tai Chi, creative art projects to open mic nights;
- Opportunities to express, experience and share a joyous part of themselves.
All our OPI Living Programs provide a nurturing environment that focuses on helping young adults achieve some level of success, even if it’s as simple as “I got through a conversation with my parents, and we were able to hear each other, disagree and come to a compromise!”
The growth that results may start externally. But, it quickly moves internally as the young adult begins to understand the process of persevering and succeeding.
Our experienced clinical team and personnel, dedicated Departments of Educational Services, Career and Volunteer Services, Extracurricular Activities, and Life Coaching along with our OPI Living facility location in Southern California make it possible for us to find opportunities these young adults can truly get excited about so they can begin to expand their horizons. This excitement is essential because it enables them to share a joyous part of themselves, which, when reflected back, helps create hope for the future.
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