Failure-to-Launch Young Adults: A New Approach

When school started, I heard about several kids who went to college—very good colleges to which the students had happily anticipated going for months—and after only a few days, called their parents to pick them up and take them home.

I see this more and more. Some will go back to school. Others will sit in their parents’ basements playing video games, with their parents wringing their hands because they do not know what to do. This can go on for years, and failure-to-launch young adults make up a large part of my business.

What I find when I talk with these teens and 20-somethings are young people who have never faced adversity, are full of shame and doubt, and lack a sense of themselves or autonomy. When I talk with the parents, I find adults who thought they did everything right and are mystified about where things went wrong.

How did they get there? And, more importantly, how to get them past this?

The Eight Ages

Psychological theory is important, as it provides context for seemingly inexplicable behavior. The failure-to-launch young adult is a perfect example of this. As I have written about before, there are psychological stages, called Ages, described by Erik Erikson, that every person has to go through in order to end up a happy adult who contributes to society (which also contributes to the person’s happiness).

What I have found is many of these failure-to-launch kids have not mastered some of the crucial early Eriksonian stages.

Again, here are Erikson’s Eight Ages:

Basic Trust vs. Basic Mistrust

Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt

Initiative vs. Guilt

Industry vs. Inferiority

Identity vs. Role Confusion

Intimacy vs. Isolation

Generativity vs. Self-Absorption

Integrity vs. Despair

And here are the benefits or deficits conferred by each age:

  1. Trust – Hope vs. Mistrust – Despair
  2. Autonomy – Will vs. Shame and Doubt – Weariness
  3. Initiative – Purpose vs. Guilt – Meaninglessness
  4. Industry – Competence vs. Inferiority – Incompetence
  5. Identity – Fidelity vs. Isolation – Infidelity
  6. Intimacy – Love vs. Role Confusion – Hatred
  7. Generativity – Care vs. Stagnation – Self-Centeredness
  8. Integrity – Wisdom vs. Despair – Confusion

If a child masters an Age, they end up with the characteristic/benefit on the left side of the “vs.” If they don’t master it, they end up with the characteristic/deficit on the right.

Today’s “failure-to-launch” young adults are cases in point for how Erikson’s Eight Ages are not only relevant, but crucial to our understanding of what is happening to our families and schools. More and more, young people are not mastering the Ages, which makes them incapable of starting their own lives, such as leaving for college or getting a job, at the Fifth Age. They literally are unable to develop a solid identity, true intimacy, and independence because they did not successfully complete the preceding ages.

They are not mastering these ages because their parents and educators are working from a new playbook—one that, I have to say straight-out, doesn’t work.

Take the first age: Trust vs. Mistrust. In this most crucial first stage of life, the child must learn that their caretaker—just the mother, in olden times, but now both parents—are there for them. The parents meet their baby’s every need. The parents are people to be trusted. Importantly, the child looks into their parents’ eyes and is “mirrored” therein.

What is mirroring? I wrote a blog on this and also explain this in my soon-to-be-published parenting primer, Reclaiming Our Children in the Digital Age:

Think goo-goo, gaa-gaa. Think deep, undistracted eye contact and presence. Think of parents on a daily basis deeply and automatically knowing what their kids are feeling and experiencing, and letting the kids know they know. That’s mirroring, and the child ends up, so to speak, carrying their mom and dad around in their heart. They deeply and automatically trust that this key adult(s) has their back forever and with no questions asked. That constant feeling inside is much of what Erikson meant by “Basic Trust.”

If you don’t mirror a baby as God/nature intended, you create fissures in the child’s ego that set up failure in succeeding ages. If the child doesn’t trust themself, the world, and the grownups around them, they can’t master the remaining ages, because the ages are cumulative. So they are in trouble right out of the box.

Mirroring doesn’t stop when the child goes on to the Second Age; in fact, mirroring doesn’t ever stop. As I wrote in that blog post, mirroring is a lifelong activity between a parent and a child, but it is not just for parents. It also is crucial for any adult who works with kids; maybe you can skip the goo-goo, gaa-gaa part, but even to just do the eye contact can be huge. And if a child cannot maintain eye contact with you, that might be a red flag that that kid might need some remedial work.

The New Playbook

With the old playbook, in many cases even parents who had deep emotional issues were present enough that they could do a pretty good job mirroring their children. Today, even healthy parents are so distracted they don’t do nearly a good-enough job. What I see are parents who are constantly distracted by their devices and busy work lives, so on a granular level they do not give their children the mirroring they need. Walk into any busy pediatrician’s office and you will see parents with a sick baby in one hand and their smartphone in their other, and they are looking at the phone.

Today’s parents, like all people throughout history, have emotional baggage, usually from their childhood, that they bring to their adult lives, and that influences a lot of their behaviors. When you combine emotional baggage with fundamental distraction, you have a recipe for some very troubled children and young adults.

As if that isn’t bad enough, it seems that a big part of this new parenting playbook is to make sure your child doesn’t face any adversity. The old playbook wasn’t perfect, but it did have a combination of elements that sought to protect children but also to prepare them for adulthood.

The new playbook focuses a lot more on protection, although I am not clear from what real threat(s) parents need to protect their children. I do believe that cultural issues are behind much of it, and I don’t blame parents for falling in line. When someone might call the police on a parent who tries to give their kid some independence, such as letting them walk alone in the neighborhood, and there seems to be so much competition surrounding parenting these days, it is hard to buck those trends. It puts parents in a position of fear: fear of the unknown threat, fear of their child losing an edge in this very scary world, but also fear of the very real consequences should they do something that is culturally condemned.

So these parents work very hard to protect their kids from failing. They stomp on any adult who seeks to challenge their child. And they often don’t let their kids out of their sight, ever, except when their child is in school or doing one (of usually many) extracurricular activities (actually, many parents today go to the extracurricular activities).

I call these parents “Snowplow Parents” because they are constantly clearing the way for their children. But cultural trends cannot change The Eight Ages. When you look at the Ages, you can see that words such as “autonomy,” “initiative,” “purpose,” “industry,” and “competence” are at the heart of all of the Ages that take a person from toddlerhood to adolescence. With Snowplow Parents, it is hard for children to do, never mind master, any of those things. As a result, the child fails those Ages.

Another important problem with new playbook parents is they are focused on outcomes, not the journey. In other words, they are focused on what their child does and not who they are. But being a kid is all about figuring out who you are, as The Eight Ages tells us. This is another way kids the new parenting playbook fails to reconcile with child development.

For many parents, the choice to use the new playbook was an unconscious one. It’s what everyone seems to do these days, and it is easy to get sucked in without even really thinking about it. Or, as I wrote, it’s hard to do things differently and not worry about how you are depriving, or even injuring, your child when you don’t do things the way everyone else does.

So, when I see young adults compulsively playing video games in their parents’ basements, I see kids who never mastered those crucial first stages of the Eight Ages of Man. As I said, they are full of shame and doubt. They lack autonomy or any sense of who they are as individuals. They often can’t make eye contact and don’t trust any adults. They don’t even trust their parents, except they do have the expectation that their parents will clear the way when any adversity happens to them, because that is all they know. So it is no surprise they yo-yo back home, as the first few days of college can be overwhelming to anyone. And these kids’ reaction when they are overwhelmed? Call the snowplow to take those uncomfortable—and, often foreign—feelings away. You get parents picking their children up a few days into college, and the kids retreating into their basement, medicating themselves with video games…or worse.

Because, of course, the real world, of which college is an important first step, doesn’t use the new playbook. The real world uses the old playbook and presents young adults with challenges, adversity…you know, life.

In the old playbook, if a child was having problems with college, they’d call after a day or two, upset at how things were going, and the parent would tell them to give it a chance, to make it through their first semester, and then they would revisit the situation. They would make the child stick it out. Today’s new playbook parents come and get the child. And then wonder what is going on, because the parents often feel like they followed all of the rules in terms of their parenting, but have a kid in their basement who doesn’t know who they are.

Can a Failure-to-Launch Child Be Relaunched?

The answer is yes, but it requires a lot of work on the part of the parents, because they have to, in a sense, re-parent their child, and the entire family needs to be relaunched. They have to restore normal progress in adolescent maturation. They have to start mirroring. They have to gradually put their child out in the world and allow them to fail—and allow them to pick themselves up when they fail. They have to look in the mirror and admit they made mistakes—not with paralyzing guilt and gnashing of teeth, but with a determination to make things right, for themselves and their kids, from now on. They have to toss out the playbook they are using and find the courage to use the old one. Interestingly, it is often very accessible, right inside their minds, hearts, and instincts—and in their memories of how they themselves were raised.

This process isn’t easy and requires motivation and commitment on the part of the parents. Because so much of this is habit or unconscious, and their child will probably resist and resent this, most parents will need some sort of professional help. But to give you an idea of the process, here are some things that I do with relaunching families:

  • We name the problem. We talk about all the things I have written above. Everyone admits their contribution to the failure: parents must admit their mistakes, but the child must also admit their role, whether it’s been resistance to parental requests and demands, or just being a jerk that no one wants to be around.
  • We talk about how everyone feels. Inevitably, difficult emotions surface, and this is a key area where having professional help is so important. Parents, often taken completely by surprise by their role, feel guilty. The child can feel anger, anxiety, and depression. Everyone is embarrassed.
  • I explain the Digital Age, including The Bombardment of outside cultural influences that both affects kids directly and causes parents to parent differently. We talk about how devices—both the parents’ and child’s—are affecting brains and relationships. I talk about Outcome Fever and tethered children. And the Snowplow phenomenon.
  • We get to work. I explore with the parents the emotional baggage they bring to the family, whether it’s a history of abuse or neglect, addiction issues (either their own or issues from their family of origin), anxiety, whatever it is. I teach parenting skills, from mirroring to setting limits and rules to letting their child fail to having device-free family time with real conversation.
  • I give the child support and a plan for overcoming the shame and embarrassment they inevitably feel and help them to start to find their voice.
  • We come up with a family plan for giving the child the opportunity and structure to get out of the basement and start doing things outside the home—independently.
  • I set the tone for everyone to enjoy this journey. Because, although it is a tough journey, it can be enjoyable. It is definitely immensely rewarding.

As I said, this process is tough and virtually impossible to do without professional help. But unless you want your child to be miserable and holed up in your basement, or even just too dependent on you through their devices, you need to do it. And when you watch your child find their voice—truly find themselves—and take off in the world, there is nothing better, and the feeling is all the richer because of the work you did together.