Falls Psychotherapy

Failure to Launch

Between adolescence and adulthood lies a sliver of time that we’ve all lived through, when society regards us as neither fish nor foul, when our youthful and sometimes reckless ways no longer seem appropriate but our minds regard things like responsibility, goals, work, mortgages, children and death as vague other world concepts. Like the middle child, inbetweeners, the age between 18 and 25, are often overlooked. In our culture, the eighteenth birthday has traditionally been seen as a one-way launch into adulthood with, for some, a stopover in the relative safety of 4 or 5 years of college. But what happens to those who fail to launch?

Talk to any parent who has lived through this time with their struggling in-betweener son or daughter and you will hear the envitable stories of neighborhood barbeques where other parents dutifully report that their son started his freshman year at Cal or that their daughter just accepted a position at Oracle…and then the happy group turns and inquires “what’s your son doing?”.

In the past four years I have seen more in-betweeners and their parents than in all my 25 years in practice. The typical in-betweener’s profile is male (although females don’t lag far behind), 19 to 23, living at home (still or again), no job, intentions to start taking classes at the JC, substance abusing, lonely (most friends have left for college or other adventures) and depressed. He finds himself gripped with confusion and internal conflict about needing his parents but at the same time hating them because they’re needed. However, this crazymaking bind, (i.e. being dependent on the very people you dislike), in the end, signifies a good prognosis. Beware the inbetweener who is happy to lounge all day without psychological tumult.

At home, the hallmark feature, almost without exception, is a deteriorating relationship with parents. Ninety-nine per cent of the time it is the parents who call to make the first appointment,. If the in-betweener has seized between dependence and independence, the parents are likewise frozen between a their innate drive to care for their child and the desire to get him/her launched (read: booted). Knee-deep confusion mixed with guilt makes forward movement difficult.

So where to begin? First, the parent perspective, “I want the best for my child” needs a second look. Once parents are able to accept that in-betweener parenting is a contact sport and begin steering their caring for their manchild/womanchild in the right direction, things start to happen. In most cases, in a relatively short time, caring begins to mean providing structure with timelines and consequences. Just as a parent might tell an six year old, “by the time the big hand is pointing to the twelve, you need to have your clothes picked up or no TV tonight”, the parent of the in-betweener might say “ our expectation is that you have a job in 2 months and that you have a place to move into 3 months after that. Failure to reach any of those goals will result in you being unable to continue living here”; the message being ‘I love you enough not to let you fail’. As heavy handed as that might sound, you’d be surprised how many in-betweeners report later, (sometimes much later), that that was the nudge they needed to get moving. Overcoming life’s inertia is not for wimps.

Next, its important to discover what’s underlying this failure-to-launch syndrome? Certainly one could point to our current economic situation; few jobs, high rent etc.. Or toward the redefining of the age of adulthood which seems to be inching upward. Maybe it’s the the perma-parent syndrome that sees parents emotionally unwilling to let go of capable sons/daughters to the outside world for fear of loosing a familiar parent identity to one without children? There is no question that the perplexing issues that conspire to abort the launch of an otherwise healthy young man or woman into adulthood are complicated. The families often seen in therapy have additional challenges beyond poor parent-child relationships. The stay-at-home child typically views him/herself as incapable of mastering the next phase of life. This esteem problem is clearly a chicken or egg conundrum; did the parents transmit a message to their child that he/she was incompetent through excessive cuddling or did the child demonstrate a need for extra attention and care through their struggling. In the end, the origin of the problem may not matter as much as the fix.

Low self-esteem is remedied through a sense of personal mastery. One of the goals of therapy is to help parents engineer mastery experiences for their child. Often this may mean setting easily attainable goals with rewards for success and consequences for inattention. A family I saw recently designed the following simple agreement; the parents required evidence that their son had, in fact, registered for JC classes and in exchange their son was permitted to continue living with the parents through the semester. Failure to produce passing grades at the end of the semester would result in the son needing to move out within two weeks; passing grades along with proof of next semester registration would earn another semester living at home…and so on. In another case a parent required ongoing clean drug tests and five filled out and turned in job applications in order for the daughter to be allowed to continue living at home. The formulas are developed based on a blend of what the parent can tolerate doing, how long the inbetweener has been stuck and what is most likely to motivate him or her.

Therapeutic interventions like these work but not always without a fair bit of push and pull. In the end, parents come to know that offering the launch pad is sometimes not enough, and that there are times when kids need a push to experience flight.

Written by MarkFalls,Phd (2010)