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Failure To Launch Syndrome: How To Help Teens and Young Adults

Failure to launch syndrome can be difficult for parents as well as teens and young adults to navigate. Parents may be frustrated if their child doesn’t want to leave home, and young people may be frustrated if they don’t feel like they’re equipped or able to live independently.  

So, what are the symptoms and causes of this issue, and how can you help if your child is struggling with it?  

What Is Failure To Launch Syndrome? 

What does failure to launch mean, and how does it affect teens and young adults? 

Failure to launch syndrome is an increasingly common problem occurring among young people who are either unwilling or ill-prepared to leave their family home and live an independent life, according to Shannon Hofer, clinical director at Fulshear Treatment to Transition, a young adult transitional living program in Texas. 

Teens and young adults will usually decline living independently from their parents and will rely on them for daily tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and even paying bills.  

Failure To Launch Syndrome Symptoms  

Identifying the symptoms of failure to launch in teens and young adults is important. Here are some symptoms to watch for.  

Lack of motivation 

Usually, unmotivated teens and unmotivated young adults have no idea where they want to go or what they want to do after a big life event. They may have failed to meet a goal in the past, resulting in a lack of motivation to try again or to even plan their future. This cycle of not launching can lead to an ever-increasing sense of self-doubt, embarrassment, and social isolation.  

Lack of ambition 

Ambition is defined as a strong desire to do something that typically requires some hard work and determination. For a teen or young adult with a lack of ambition, life at home while doing the bare minimum can become appealing. This issue is often linked to a poor sense of self and a fear of challenging oneself.   

Poor work ethic 

When a teen or young adult has a poor work ethic, it can be seen in their productivity, by missed deadlines, or with the quality of their work. They usually verbalize that they don’t care for the job they’re performing.  

Low frustration tolerance 

A young person with a low frustration tolerance can be easily frustrated by tasks that take more time and effort than they intended or that require more knowledge than they have. 

Lack of accountability 

If your teen or young adult does not have many responsibilities, a lack of accountability to themself or others may make them feel as though there’s no rush to leave home and live independently. They also may not hold themselves accountable for tasks or goals they set for themselves, further slipping into failure to launch syndrome.  

Procrastination 

Young people are often encouraged to “live their best life” and do what they think is best for them in the moment. Usually, that approach lacks future planning and can lead to procrastination of independent living. The teen or young adult will intentionally put off completing tasks that need to be done.  

Difficulty dealing with stress 

If a teen or young adult has not been taught proper ways to cope with stress, they can find themselves frustrated when performing even small tasks that are needed to gain independence.  

Isolation 

A young person who feels as though they don’t have any skills to contribute to independent living may resort to isolation. If they can’t cook or clean, for example, they may avoid being around other people so they don’t have to deal with their lack of skills.  

Failure To Launch Syndrome Causes   

What causes failure to launch? 

Listed below are a few causes that can possibly trigger failure to launch syndrome. 

1. Developmental disruption/trauma 

When it comes to the relationship between failure to launch and trauma, if a teen or young adult has experienced trauma, day-to-day life can already seem difficult. If they’re also trying to plan for their future, they can easily become overwhelmed, leading to failure to launch syndrome.  

2. Helicopter parenting 

Helicopter parenting can be tricky, as parents don’t want to see their child struggle. As a result, they try to make life easier for them by doing close to everything for them, according to Hofer. This takes away the teen or young adult’s ability to make and learn from mistakes.  

As Hofer shared, a high school student who did everything independently would better transition to adulthood than a student who had their parents help them manage everything. That said, they’ll still need their parents to help them develop the necessary relational skills for long-term life success. 

3. Mental illness and developmental disorders 

Regarding the relationship between failure to launch and mental illness, mental illnesses and developmental disorders can make transitioning to adulthood challenging. Depression, anxiety, autism, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), for example, can make thinking about — and taking steps toward — independent living feel overwhelming.  

Anxiety 

When it comes to failure to launch and anxiety, difficulty transitioning to adulthood can be a result of a few factors such as not dealing much with difficult situations or not having faced challenges in life alone. The opposite could also be true, where the parent has overindulged the teen or young adult and provided excessive emotional support.  

Depression 

If a teen or young adult has been diagnosed with depression, they can find it hard to concentrate, eat, manage their work, sleep, or even socialize. Because failure to launch and depression have similar symptoms, both can make daily tasks harder to perform. 

Autism 

Regarding the relationship between autism and failure to launch, if a teen or young adult has been diagnosed with autism, they may be used to specific routines. Disrupting those routines with change can be overwhelming and can lead them to cling to familiar habits and environments. The social demands of work or making friends outside of their familiar environment can also be overwhelming.  

ADHD 

A teen or young adult who’s experiencing failure to launch syndrome and ADHD may find it hard to focus and keep track of responsibilities. ADHD can influence their lack of desire for an independent life if they haven’t found something they excel in or are passionate about. 

4. Substance abuse 

Substance abuse can often be overlooked as a reason behind difficulties transitioning to adulthood. 

Drinking 

Drinking can cause social, academic, and physical problems as well as memory problems, long-term changes in the brain, and an increased risk of suicide*.  According to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, alcohol is the most commonly used substance among people 12 and older.  

Marijuana use 

Marijuana use has been on the rise. Among young adults ages 19-30, it increased significantly in the past few years, from 34% in 2016 to 43% in 2021, according to a National Institutes of Health-supported Monitoring the Future study. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, short-term effects of marijuana use include impaired body movement and memory as well as difficulty thinking and problem solving.  

5. Technology addiction 

We have more access to technology than any other generation before. However, while that can be helpful, frequently or constantly being connected to the Internet can make it harder for some teenagers and young adults to learn social skills needed for the real world. Too much screen time can also be problematic. 

“We have some students who will stay up all night on their phone, then miss their group session the next day,” Hofer said, “So, we teach them how to manage technology and how to set boundaries.” 

Social media can also be a cause of failure to launch, according to Hofer, as it showcases who’s doing — or appears to be doing — well and what everyone is up to on a daily basis. If a teenager or young adult doesn’t feel they’ve lived up to those standards, it can affect their motivation and ambition. 

6. Life challenges   

Sometimes, failure to launch syndrome can connect to life challenges. For example, a death in the family, a breakup, or limited finances can cause their environment and perspective to change. If they’re at a university, they may drop out and not return. Failure to launch after college could also occur, with a young adult struggling to succeed in the workplace. 

Young adult with failure to launch syndrome learns how to develop goals and take action from mental health treatment.
Young adult with failure to launch syndrome learns how to develop goals and take action from mental health treatment. 

9 Ways You Can Help Your Teen or Young Adult Overcome Failure To Launch Syndrome   

There are several ways you can help your teen or young adult with overcoming failure to launch. 

1. Access parent counseling/coaching  

Parents often need assistance with developing consistent boundaries and consequences for their children so they can provide the necessary structure for a teen or young adult’s healthy development and capacity to launch.  

2. Find a program that can help treat failure to launch syndrome 

If your child has experienced difficulties for at least one year, Hofer recommended you consider failure to launch treatment such as a transitional living center, which can help them learn how to live independently while treating mental health challenges.  

3. Find coaching to help with your child’s failure to launch 

For less severe difficulties, failure to launch coaching, therapy, or educational consulting can be a great way to seek support not just for a young person but also for the whole family, according to Hofer. The coach, therapist, or educational consultant can help address the needs of a teen or young adult while also providing support and advice to family members. 

4. Plan an intervention for your child 

Whether teens and young adults need failure to launch interventions depends on the severity of their symptoms. If they’ve struggled with the transition to adulthood for over a year, even with the support of outpatient therapy or coaching, then Hofer recommended an intervention. 

The first step is to contact a mental health professional such as a therapist or an educational consultant to determine whether your child needs to be placed in a transitional living or other program. After, you — and that mental health expert, if you like — would meet with your teen or young adult to communicate your concerns and present treatment options. You may need to set boundaries regarding how you’ll support your child moving forward and what expectations you have for treatment.    

5. Help your child develop a living skills checklist 

By helping a teen or young adult make an independent living skills checklist, you can help them learn what they need to know to overcome failure to launch syndrome. When creating the list, be sure to add skills like food and house management, financial preparedness, job skills, and stress management.  

6. Help your child develop goals 

Sometimes just simply helping a teen or young adult set goals can make a big difference. Sit down with them and talk through what they’d like to accomplish. Then break down those goals into actionable steps they can achieve daily. 

7. Teach your child to take action 

Teaching a teen or young adult to take action may require finding a balance between giving enough guidance and freedom, according to Hofer.  

“Give them choices, and let them show you how much freedom they can handle,” she said.   

“Offer them opportunities to fail and make mistakes, then teach them through those failures and mistakes. Encourage them, be clear about consequences, and provide them with loving boundaries.” 

8. Help your child develop a support system 

A support system can include friends, family members, teachers, and mentors but can also be a club or volunteer group a young person frequents. Helping your child identify the right people for a support system can ensure they’re surrounded by others with similar interests, which can have a positive impact on their mental health. It can also spark them to want to act and do things independently. 

9. Help your child to be mindful 

Mindfulness can also make a positive impact on mental health. Performing brief meditation exercises can help a young person step away from the pressures they feel and develop emotional regulation and better awareness. 

Failure To Launch Wrapup 

Failure to launch syndrome can be difficult to navigate, but by understanding the symptoms and causes and having a plan to address the issue, you can help your child overcome this challenge.  

“Hang in there!” Hofer said. “We do our best to teach them skills, but they must make their own decisions. Reach out for help if you need it.”  

*This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. If you’re having a mental health emergency, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for immediate support by calling, texting, or chatting 988. You can also text HOME to 741741 — the Crisis Text Line — from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.   

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today! 

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-based approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual counseling, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), short-term residential treatment, wilderness therapy, and long-term residential treatment, visit www.embarkbh.com.