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How to Help Young Adults with Failure to Launch Syndrome

A hot air balloon launching

The transition to adulthood is inescapable, but some young people will make this transition sooner or more smoothly than others.

You may be a parent whose child hasn’t left home, or has returned home after a major setback in their lives. They may have left school because of grades or a lack of motivation and direction. They may be stuck, and unwilling to “unstick” themselves. Somewhere along the way, the transition from childhood to adulthood has either not happened, or has gone awry.

More and more, we’re seeing emerging adults who are letting the world pass them by. The desire to establish oneself and take charge of their life is lost, and they might have returned home, or never left at all. This is a frustrating reality for parents who only want to equip their children with the ability to achieve their goals and make something of themselves. But I believe all young people are in fact capable of finding their place in the world with the right guidance, mindset, and resources.

What is Failure to Launch Syndrome?

Let’s get down to properly defining the sometimes misleading term of “Failure to Launch

Syndrome”. First off, it is not a syndrome in the classical sense, and is definitely not a disease or condition emerging adults develop. “Failure to launch”, or what some people might call “Peter Pan Syndrome”, is a delay in the universal process of moving toward financial and personal independence. The milestones of adulthood such as establishing a career and creating a worthwhile personal life through marriage or otherwise seem out of reach. Young people experiencing a failure to launch will avoid these milestones, sometimes to the bewilderment of their parents.

What Causes Failure to Launch?

The cause of FTL is always a multifaceted issue peculiar to the young person in question,

something proven to myself and my colleagues in our work at Valiance time and time again. Adolescent psychologist Eli Leibowitz, PhD, posits that anxiety (and a lack of independent coping mechanisms) leads many emerging adults to avoid the milestones of adulthood

An over-reliance on comfort, as opposed to independent and constructive coping mechanisms, is often the answer for FTL clients. This comfort can be found through substances, entertainment or the technology we use everyday, helping to stave off the pain of anxiety. Video games, for instance, can provide a badly-needed escape and satiate the need for achievement and progress in a way they don’t recognize real-world milestones can provide.

Depression, exacerbated by a negative self-image or a lack of agency, can also contribute to a failure to launch. The sting of feeling “left behind” or not meeting the expectations can burden a young person’s ability to recognize opportunities for growth or develop a positive mindset where motivation is found.

Failure to Launch Symptoms

So what characterizes young adults experiencing a failure to launch? What are the symptoms of a failure to launch?

The most obvious symptom of FTL is not leaving home to pursue one’s own path. Financial dependence is common, though not universal. Another common issue is an overwhelming need for comfort. Today, we find comfort in more types of entertainment, substances and technology than ever before. Because the challenge of establishing your own life is so intimidating, we find more and more young people are turning to their tried and true sources of comfort they’ve leaned on before to anesthetize their depression or anxiety.

They become more risk-averse the longer they rely on these comforts. Turning around this over-reliance becomes an uphill battle that only gets steeper the longer it isn’t dealt with.

Failure to Launch Syndrome & ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder)

Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder can also factor in a failure to launch case. ADHD

symptoms in emerging adults such as an inability to concentrate on tasks and goals play a major role in holding someone back from focusing their energies and abilities on making the right choices and putting in the right effort to set their own ship afloat.

Failure to Launch Help for Parents

Parents have a particularly difficult job when it comes to motivating their emerging adults. You only want what is best for your kids at such a pivotal moment in their lives, but inspiring a young person to take charge of their future is not as straightforward as simply telling them to “buck up”. Even worse, phrases like “I did it, and so can you” will most likely fall on deaf ears.

It’s crucial to let your child know it’s never too late to take charge of their life, that there’s no “starting point” they missed, and no “finish line” to cross, that life is only out of their control if they let it become so. The time to begin wasn’t when they were younger: it’s always now.

If I were to give advice to any parent whose child is experiencing a failure to launch, it would be to take stock of the situation for what it is: we live in a world vastly different from the one we grew up in. We may have been given fewer choices in life, or the road was clearer for us in those crucial times before we set out on our own. In short, remember that the transition to modern adulthood nowadays is a challenge that is new to both you and your child.

Even though it’s frustrating to work with a young adult who seemingly doesn’t want to take on the responsibilities of adulthood, parents will be best served understanding they can be both part of the problem and the solution. It’s helpful to reframe your thinking away from “What’s wrong with my child?” to something more akin to “What does my child need to break through this funk?” And what they need is mentorship and guidance.

The next and perhaps more crucial step is understanding there are solutions out there. By reading this blog you are already taking a step to understand, so I ask that you give yourself credit for work done. Now, it’s time to bring that spirit of understanding to your child. So often I will hear young people tell me about their home life and say something to the effect of “They don’t understand” or “Nobody listens to me.” This is the time to turn that situation around and start heartfelt conversations with your child about what they are feeling, what they are afraid of and what they feel is holding them back. Paramount to this is coming to those conversations with an open mind toward accepting what you hear, even if it brings up uncomfortable realities

for you.

In our work, we’ve also found that young people experiencing a failure to launch will often receive “extrinsic” as opposed to “intrinsic or characteristic” awards at home. When we provide hollow praise all the time, an emerging adult won’t see value in the things that make them special and distinct from other people. They may be a great writer, but they won’t know simply by you praising their skill. That’s why we will always get to know our clients and what makes them an individual to shed light on who they actually are and how they can be of value to the wider world. We comment less on talent, focus and affirm effort, and reward resilience,

What your young adult needs is guidance, mentorship and accountability. At Valiance

Counseling, we work to develop a full understanding of the multi-faceted reality clients face and incorporate our findings into the building of a personal development and coaching plan that will meet their particular needs. We get to know our clients to the fullest extent because - with experience - we know the solution set for one person will not be the same as the next. Just as every child is a special individual with their own needs, a treatment program for a failure to launch is original, backed with clinical and coaching experience, and made to fit the life of the client who is brave enough to ask for help.

How to Treat Failure to Launch Syndrome

Our hybrid approach to treating failure to launch, which combines clinical therapeutic training and the motivational power of results-focused coaching, hones in on the personal characteristics our clients can recognize as valuable. When they can see value in themselves, the process of developing motivation can begin. We’ll help young people focus on the things that are important to them. In a world of seemingly limitless options (and the common messaging they receive from parents that their only task is

choosing among these limitless options) clients will feel like they don’t know where to start, lost in the myriad directions to take. We find that our approach makes the wider question of “What are you going to do with your life” a much more manageable one when self-discovery, narrowing the field of options through this self-discovery, and a dedication to changing habits and mindsets remains at the center of the program.

Many are afraid to admit they’re heading in the wrong direction because of shame or

embarrassment, but we combat that negative image by reinforcing the fact that what’s more important is accepting their past and seeing the value in recognizing they need to make changes.

Often in tandem with the above strategies, I try to break the curse of fixed mindsets. Explored in great detail in Carol Dwek's book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success", I find that when you can properly challenge an intractable mindset by replacing it with one focused on change and growth, young people are far more able to recognize the

possibility of righting their own ship.

Failure to Launch Treatment

Since you’ve gotten this far, know that you’re not alone. I and my team have taken on many FTL clients who go on to assume the responsibility of their lives and their futures. If you’re ready to unstick your child, take it from me - they are ready too.

Onward and upwards!

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