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What Is Failure to Launch Syndrome in Young Adults?

Reading Time: 8 minutes

The pandemic forced many emerging adults to take a few steps backward on their path to maturity. College students who had recently left the nest returned home. New graduates lost jobs or struggled to find one. Dating and romantic relationships stalled. From the outside, the early pandemic time for young adults resembled what’s known as “failure to launch” syndrome—an inability to progress into an independent life.

Now most young adults who returned home to their family “pod” in 2020 have set out once again—for a college campus, a new job, or a different city. However, others show no signs of moving on. Has the pandemic hindered a generation’s transition to adulthood? How can parents help ease their child’s path in difficult times, without enabling “failure to launch” syndrome?

What is “Failure to Launch” Syndrome?

The term “failure to launch” syndrome is not a formally recognized mental health diagnosis. Rather, it is a pop culture label for a young adult who lives at home and remains highly dependent on their parents. Unlike other multigenerational living arrangements, a young adult suffering from “failure to launch” is not typically in school or working. They do not contribute to the household financially or help with chores. Other “failure to launch” symptoms may include:

  • General passivity
  • Lack of motivation
  • Low ambition
  • Procrastination
  • Difficulty managing stress
  • Avoidance of activities that involve responsibility
  • Withdrawal and isolation
  • Poor social and communication skills

Instead of failure to launch meaning that an adult child is “lazy” or “spoiled,” it is usually an indication that a young adult struggles with their mental health. Moreover, the symptoms may be compounded by a sense of shame absorbed from mainstream culture that stigmatizes a young adult’s “failure to launch.” For a young adult who feels stuck, shame further lowers their self-esteem and intensifies their underlying mental health issues. And parents’ efforts to ease their child’s distress by sheltering them from the demands of life can actually make things worse.  

Know the Facts

According to the Pew Research Center, 25 percent of young adults aged 25 to 34 lived in a multigenerational household in 2021, most commonly in the home of a parent.

The Difference Between Living at Home and Failure to Launch

The increase in adult children living with their parents has been interpreted by the media as evidence of a “failure to launch” syndrome epidemic. That’s because, by traditional western standards, the markers of adulthood include the following milestones:

  • Living on one’s own or with friends
  • Completing schooling
  • Full-time employment
  • Financial independence
  • Establishing a long-term love relationship
  • Having children 

However, numerous societal trends underlie the growing numbers of young adults living with their parents. Researchers point to longer time spent in school, increasing levels of student debt, and rising housing costs, among other social pressures and financial uncertainties. The trend is most prevalent among those without a college degree, who are more than twice as likely to live at home as college graduates. 

The Benefits of Young Adult Children Living at Home

For today’s young adults, relationships matter more than a conventional definition of success. One study of college students revealed that young adults see relational qualities as better indicators of adulthood than the achievement of traditional social roles. Such qualities include developing an equal relationship with parents, showing consideration for others, and maintaining control of emotions. All of these areas of maturity can continue to grow while living at home. 

In addition, statistics show that the typical young adult in a multigenerational household contributed 22 percent of household income. In other words, they were working outside the home, helping to support the household, and (hopefully) moving toward career goals. 

Clearly, then, not every instance of young adults living with their parents is a case of “failure to launch” syndrome. In many cultures, in fact, it’s expected and supportive. Increasingly, families from a wide range of backgrounds view multigenerational living as a smart choice. Not only does it help a young adult get ahead financially, but it can also be beneficial for parents. Family connectedness and supportive social relationships are a primary source of resilience and well-being at every stage of life. 

What Causes Failure to Launch?

The pandemic has affected the mental health of young adults more than any other age group. Their increasing levels of anxiety and depression can set the stage for a failure to launch. But failure to launch syndrome can also be a vicious cycle. Feeling reliant on parents, if it’s not a deliberate choice, can amplify underlying depression or anxiety. That makes it even harder to summon the effort to engage in education or form career goals.

Although there is no single cause for “failure to launch” syndrome, anxiety is usually a common factor. This may reflect an underlying anxiety disorder. Or it can arise for a variety of other reasons:

  • Difficulty with emotion regulation in response to stress, a common factor in many mental health disorders, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or PTSD
  • Impaired executive functioning that inhibits the ability to make plans and act on them, whether due to the late maturation of the prefrontal cortex or a disorder such as ADHD 
  • Life experiences, especially childhood trauma, that generate shame or low self-esteem
  • A fear of failure or mistakes, often rooted in perfectionism
  • Unrealistic expectations of themselves, sometimes fostered by the curated views of other people’s lives seen through social media
  • The perception (accurate or not) that other people, including parents, have unattainable expectations of them
  • Poor sleep or nutrition habits that deplete their ability to manage stress
  • Substance abuse or behavioral addictions, such as gambling or gaming disorder 
  • Physical health conditions, such as Lyme disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, or long COVID, that increase the difficulty of the responsibilities of daily living.

Accommodation is helpful when it teaches your child the valuable lesson that they are able to cope with feeling anxious. Accommodation is unhelpful when it reinforces your child’s belief that they cannot cope with anxiety and must avoid situations that are likely to trigger it.

Eli Lebowitz
Director of the Program for Anxiety Disorders at the Yale Child Study Center

The Accommodation Trap

Whatever the origins of a young adult’s suffering from failure to launch, the way a family reacts is an important part of the dynamic. It is natural to want to help a child who is struggling, whether they are in active distress or in avoidance mode. But there is a difference between helping a child avoid anxiety vs. offering a child the support they need to learn to overcome their anxiety. Psychologist Eli Lebowitz, who specializes in helping families of children with anxiety and OCD, calls this the “accommodation trap.” 

Well-intentioned parental overinvolvement can actually worsen a child’s symptoms. But it can be difficult to know how to step back. Parents who feel at a loss for how to help their struggling child usually focus on trying to get the child to change. Lebowitz encourages parents to focus on changing their own behavior first. The shift from providing protection to offering support is a delicate process, Lebowitz warns. Parents must take care to communicate acceptance of their adult child’s feelings, as well as confidence that they can overcome their fear. He suggests the following wording:

  • Acceptance: “I accept that you are afraid and acknowledge that what you are feeling is real and legitimate. I am not trying to deny your experience or to belittle it.” 
  • Confidence: “I have faith in your ability. I know you can cope and believe you are strong enough to face this challenge successfully.”

Even with these messages of acceptance and confidence, long-standing patterns of dependency and accommodation are difficult to shift. Awareness, determination and support are necessary in order to help a young adult move forward with a sense of confidence and self-efficacy.

How to Support Young Adults to Launch

Both parents and young adult children living at home should recognize that their relationship must evolve in a way that respects everyone’s needs.

Make an agreement about how things will work at home.

Families will need to thoughtfully negotiate boundaries and expectations in order to allow a young adult to continue healthy development towards autonomy. Otherwise, the situation can become a source of resentment for both parents and their adult children. Some parents and adult children create a written contract so the expectations and consequences are clear to everyone.

Encourage them to explore without pressuring them to commit.

Remember that for most people, the transition to adulthood is a gradual process of discovering a role that fits. Prematurely committing to a path that does not align with a young adult’s skills, interests, and values can set the stage for future problems. Let your child know that it’s okay to change their mind—the important thing is to try things to see how they feel.

Help your adult child set realistic goals.

Target small increments of change that move a young adult in the right direction, and celebrate those achievements. Lifestyle changes, such as sleep, nutrition, and physical activity, may be a good place to start, because of the role they play in supporting mental health. In-person social connections also provide far-reaching benefits.

Be honest with yourself about your parenting style.

Studies show that an over-involved and over-controlling parenting style (often referred to as “helicopter parenting”) is tied to increased rates of anxiety and depression. Get input from a trusted friend or therapist for a compassionate but objective appraisal.

Consider family therapy.

Family therapists are trained to view the family as an interconnected system. A family therapist can help parents understand how a change in their own behavior may be the most effective way to produce a change in their child. Moreover, family therapy can help rebuild broken trust and long-standing attachment ruptures between parents and children.

How Newport Institute Addresses the Root Causes of Failure to Launch Syndrome

At Newport Institute, we guide families to find harmony and young adults to find their own path with the loving support of parents. Our approach nurtures healthy autonomy while repairing parent-child bonds, using the proven techniques of Attachment-Based Family Therapy. In addition, during their time with us, young adults uncover and heal the underlying anxiety, trauma, or depression that may be catalyzing their failure to launch. 

In a matter of weeks, our young adult clients access motivation, healthy coping skills, and a sense of meaning that propels them forward into a fully launched life. Contact us today to learn more about our specialized treatment for the unique needs of emerging adults.

Key Takeaways

  • The term “failure to launch” syndrome is not a formally recognized mental health diagnosis. Rather, it is a popular culture label for a young adult who lives at home and remains highly dependent on their parents.
  • While some in the media point to the increase in adult children living with their parents as evidence of a “failure to launch” syndrome epidemic, that is not necessarily the case.
  • The pandemic has affected the mental health of young adults more than any other age group, leading to failure to launch symptoms.
  • Although there is no single cause for “failure to launch” syndrome, anxiety is usually a common factor.
  • Whatever the origins of a young adult’s suffering from failure to launch, the way a family reacts is an important part of the dynamic.

Frequently Asked Questions About Failure to Launch Syndrome


What is failure to launch syndrome?

Failure to launch” syndrome is a label for a young adult who lives at home and remains highly dependent on their parents.

Is failure to launch a mental illness?

“Failure to launch” syndrome is not a mental health diagnosis, but it frequently indicates an underlying mental health struggle.

Why do some children fail to launch?

Societal, individual, and global factors all have an impact on why some children have difficulty assuming the responsibilities of adulthood. The pandemic has increased levels of anxiety and depression among young adults, an underlying cause of an adult child’s failure to launch.

What kind of therapy is effective for failure to launch treatment?

Individual therapy techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help a young adult manage their anxiety or depression. Family therapy can help parents understand how a change in their own behavior may be the most effective way to produce a change in their child.

Does failure to launch counseling really help?

The most successful approach to failure to launch treatment investigates the root cause of a young adult’s underlying mental health struggles.

Sources

Fam J. 2022; 30(3): 459–465.

Front Psychol. 2022; 13: 872981.

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Aug 26;19(17):10659.

PLoS One. 2022 Sep; 17(9): e0274542.

Appl Dev Sci. 2016; 20(3): 150–174.

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2016;4(3): 161–167.

Front Psychol. 2018 Jul 17;9:1126.




 

Co-Occurring Disorders / October 7, 2022

Newport Institute

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