“Failure to launch” has been used recently to describe grown children who, for one reason or another, aren’t willing or able to leave their family home to pursue their own goals, lead independent lives and become self-sufficient. This phenomenon is on the rise, and it’s important to understand what can cause it and what you can do to help a child get through it.

Early Signs of Failure to Launch

Most parents who have an adult child who has “failed to launch” identify some of these factors being present in their child:

  • Unwillingness or inability to take on responsibilities
  • Low self-esteem
  • Cautiousness to new situations
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Extreme introversion
  • Learning issues or issues in school
  • Lack of engagement in activities or sports or hobbies
  • Dependency on parents and others
  • Low levels of self-motivation

Mental Health Issues Associated with Failure to Launch

The following diagnoses have been associated with children who have failure to launch:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Social Anxiety
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Substance Use

Preventing Failure to Launch

If you are able to identify the above early signs, early intervention may prevent failure to launch from happening. For children with self-esteem issues, engaging a therapist early can lead to increased self-esteem and failure/rejection coping mechanisms that the child can learn and harness as they go through life. For children with social avoidance or extreme introversion, a diagnosis of social anxiety should be considered and treated early. Learning issues can be identified by early testing, and interventions in the school and at home can help a child to improve their school success. And, lastly, getting a child engaged in an activity or hobby that they enjoy can bring meaning and purpose to their lives and increase their self-esteem. They don’t have to be a star soccer player, but finding an activity that is both healthy and enjoyable for them so that they are the driving force behind doing it is key.

For children who are overly dependent on their parents, this is usually a two-way problem. The parent needs to let go and have the child start taking on responsibilities and independence as much as the child needs to stop depending so much on their parent. This is sometimes called a “dependency trap” or “accommodation trap” where the parents are only reinforcing their child’s dependency and anxiety by doing things for them or insulating them and not allowing them to experience normal levels of anxiety and stress. Solving this issue involves parent-based therapy to help parents stop falling back on that behavior.

Treating Underlying Mental Health Issues

Identifying and treating any underlying mental health issues will be critical to helping a child launch. They cannot be expected to willingly head out into a world or situation that makes them uneasy if they are depressed, have an anxiety disorder, or other issue.

Treating Failure to Launch Once It Has Happened

Once mental health issues, if present, are addressed, there are many things that can help to “launch” a child. This includes psychotherapy, but also things like mindfulness, meditation, and changing the way they approach daily life. For most people who fail to launch, they avoid things for several reasons: they don’t like uncomfortable feelings associated with doing something challenging, they have self-doubt, and they have likely never been held accountable for meeting goals or expectations.

Outside of psychotherapy from a licensed profession, which I wholeheartedly recommend, here are the other 3 steps that they should take:

  1. Face uncomfortable feelings: If a task makes them feel discomfort or resistance, that is exactly the task they should do. They must understand that failure at that task is acceptable — but that avoiding the task is not. At least once a day, a task like this must be undertaken even if it is small such as emptying the dishwasher, doing laundry, going grocery shopping, or going for a walk. After they complete it, talk about how they felt before, during, and after.
  2. Arguing against self-doubt:Whenever feeling of self-doubt arise about a task, actively help them argue the opposite side of that doubt. If they feel a task is too difficult or large and that they can’t get it done, or can’t get it done correctly, then they should consider all the reasons they might do it well or be able to complete it and how they will feel when they do.
  3. Learn to motivate by using things they enjoy: No matter the task or goal, there is always a way to make it more pleasant by combining it with something they enjoy or rewarding it after it is completed. If mopping a floor is seen as unpleasant they can listen to their favorite podcast or music while doing it. If getting exercise is a goal, then find a way to do something that they enjoy, such as laser tag or dodgeball, or even just listening to music or an audiobook while they walk. If watching television or playing video games is something they enjoy, they should reserve it as a reward only after they complete a goal.

In Summary

Failure to launch is a phenomenon that is increasing in our society for many reasons, and the underlying causes of it are where we need to start focusing before we can simply try to “launch” an unwilling adult. The parent is usually as much a part of the problem as they are necessary for a solution and so therapy for both the parent and child is the most effective way to approach this.