Failure to Launch Syndrome: What You Need to Know to Help Your Dependent Adult Child

03/02/2015 10:37 am ET | Updated May 02, 2015

Co-authored by Susan Anderer, Psy.D

Failure to Launch is not just another Matthew McConaughey movie, but a real-life struggle of young people, 19 to 28, who lack the tools to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood. While the McConaughey movie is a comedy where a young man continues to live at home and to enjoy being dotted on by his parents, the reality of children in this situation is a painful daily struggle to secure meaning, purpose, relationships, and independence in their lives.

Emotionally and financially draining, failure to launch children seemingly have little intrinsic motivation to move through life. Lacking the skills to function independently, these students have failed to navigate college and find themselves back at home, out of sync with their peers, and in constant tension with their families. The consequences are often substance misuse, depression, low self-esteem, and social anxiety. What is it that differentiates these young people from their peers who have made more successful transitions? The causes are complex and often multiply determined.

For one, there can be underlying learning and/or attention problems that have been present for a long time but do not have a significant impact on a student's functioning until they leave home. For bright students, often sitting in class alone allows them to adequately master material without putting in significant hours of study. This generally does not hold true at the college level, where some level of independent study is essential to grasp larger volumes of material. In addition, while class participation, projects and extra credit can help students to compensate for low test grades in high school, this is rarely the case in college where the grades are determined by two exams and a final. As a result, subtle or not-so-subtle learning issues get in the way of academic success.

Another factor contributing to a failure to launch is the high stakes college admission game and the investment of time, energy, money and ego that goes in to this on both the students' and parent' part. We see many families who cannot allow their child to function independently and risk potential failure in high school for fear that this will impact their "college choices." Yes, allowing a child to feel the negative consequences of their lack of study or failure to seek additional teacher support is uncomfortable and may result in lower grades, it allows them to develop a real awareness of their own skills.

Furthermore, when students feel the natural consequences of their behaviors, they tend to develop resiliency and grit that is essential to a successful launch. Parents who step in to rescue their children from a failing grade, an unfinished paper, or a disciplinary consequence are creating a pattern that perpetuates a need for ongoing rescue. Children don't magically develop these coping skills and resiliency simply because they leave home or reach a certain age.

For many students, while being away from home seemed like an exciting opportunity when they were in high school and tired of their old friends, the prospect of creating a new social group and new social identity are daunting. For students who have been in the same social circle since kindergarten, making new friends, redefining themselves, and cultivating deeper and more intimate relationships is overwhelming. Without their familiar social supports, many children struggle to find their place. This can be exacerbated by the presence of significant mental illness, many of which have their age of initial onset during this time.

Given the multiplicity of factors interfering with a successful launch, treatment is equally multifaceted. Engaging the family in setting appropriate expectations and limits, setting short-term attainable goals, assessing learning and attention problems, and creating a long-term plan are essential for getting students back on track. In many cases, it can be beneficial for young adults to live in a setting with other young adults, while being partially responsible for the financial arrangement.

The person should be given clear responsibilities and face natural consequences if he or she does not live up to the responsibility. Organizational coaches can be employed to help the individual establish plans that would assist in accomplishing goals such as finding a part-time job and managing money. Individual therapy can be of great benefit to address doubts about the person's own sense of effectiveness and ambivalence about entering adulthood. Therapy can also help a person to increase awareness of emotions and the ability to communicate them effectively. Finally, medications to treat underlying symptoms of attention, anxiety and depression can be helpful if prescribed judiciously.

Unlike the Matthew McConaughey character, even Sarah Jessica Parker alone won't be enough motivation to get it together. Persistence, the development of resiliency, introspection and self-understanding, and appropriate family support are the key to moving an adolescent into true adulthood.

Dr. Ascher serves as a clinical associate in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and is in private practice. Dr. Anderer is a licensed psychologist and certified school psychologist in Pennsylvania. Her private practice focuses on both the assessment of complex educational and emotional issues as well as intervention strategies for remediating these challenges.