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“Failure to Launch” Syndrome

John was never the greatest of students but he did manage to graduate from college in five years. Yay! His parents felt a sigh of relief. Finally, he had accomplished what he set out to do.

boy-empty-pocketsNow three years later, Mom and Dad are feeling increasingly distressed. John is living back home and going nowhere. His motivation to get a job comes and goes. The bulk of his day is spent on social media, video games and getting high. He shows little interest in becoming an independent, self-sufficient adult. If his parents would get him an apartment, he’d move in a minute. But the idea of working toward that goal is beyond him.

What’s going on here? John is a prime example of a young man deep in the ‘Failure to Launch’ syndrome.

It used to be that finishing high school, college or grad school marked the beginning of adulthood. It was the time in which you got a job or began a career and took responsibility for becoming a self-sufficient adult.

Today, in many homes, nothing like that is happening, resulting in strained relationships and drained finances. This syndrome begins way before graduation day. Despite the astronomical expenses of college, only one third of students graduate on time. After 6 years, only 60% of college students have graduated and only a small percentage of those have a degree that has prepared them for a career.

Parents are fraught with anxiety. What should they do? “We love him but this is not what we expected. Should we practice “tough love” and kick him out of the house? We thought about that but where would he go? We couldn’t live with ourselves if he were living on the streets. And we don’t want to give up on him.”

What a frustrating situation! If this story is hitting home, here’s what you must do to help your young adult develop the necessary skills for lift off.

  1. First, don’t immediately think something is wrong. Give a young person time to establish himself. A brief stint at home after graduation is to be expected. Not many college grads have a clear direction for what to do next. And an economy that is still far from robust does not help matters.
  2. Teach (or hire a coach) to help your young adult learn to deal with the multiple challenges of adulthood. These might include how to job search, write a resume, build career skills, self-presentation skills, money management, household maintenance skills and “roughing” it, so one can afford to live on one’s own.
  3. Recognize psychological problems that may be inhibiting his development. This might include anxiety, procrastination, lack of drive or persistence, need for instant gratification, a strong pattern of avoidance instead of confronting challenges, depression, inability to control anger, substance abuse. Insist that he get help to specifically address those issues.
  4. Expect him to be a contributing member of the household with chores, if not money. Be clear on what his responsibilities are. Make sure he functions as part of the family, not apart from the family.
  5. Be aware of signs of narcissism and lack of concern for others. Narcissism may become a pattern when one is repeatedly told how special, smart, talented and great one is, without connecting these gifts to the personal effort and hard work needed to actualize them. The upshot? Kids can come to feel entitled to receiving what they want just because they want it. Make sure you don’t feed narcissistic demands. Be clear on what you will do for your young adult and what you won’t do.

Tell your young adult that it is okay to be scared and uncertain about life’s challenges, but that facing the challenge head on and taking appropriate action will help them discover who they are and who they can be.


“Sometimes you don’t realize your own strength until you come face to face with your greatest weakness.”
— Susan Gale

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