A Quarter Century: Your twenties is the beginning of adulthood, an independent life that belongs to no one else but you. It’s a time when you construct a future; a platform of sorts that will benefit you later down the road. You get a job, learn new skills and try to make relationships work.
After living under a parent’s protective shelter for almost two decades, most people can't wait to move on. It's a developmental moment as basic as a first-grader getting on the bus. There’s some fear; but the thrill of independence trumps everything.
Yet, many twentysomethings today, especially young men, are having trouble with this transition. And, now its public record after David Brooks of The New York Times wrote a compelling piece called "Why Men Fail." Our boys (and some girls) seem to be lacking what is needed for contemporary success—while our girls seem to be doing great.
Adult life beckons, but seems out of their grasp.
I come to think of these guys as Avoiders.
Case Example: After dropping out of college, Zachary now stays at home and does nothing productive. He has no regular job or even a driver's license. He works a little, but for the most part spends his time at home slacking.
Does Zachary’s experience sound familiar to you? Are you or someone you know simply stuck at home, feeling like child in a co-dependent relationship with your parents?
Avoidant behaviour is a strategy for failure.
Stuck At Home: If you're in your twenties, you probably know people who fit the Avoidant description. If you're a parent, you may have your own Avoider; and any your friends may be co-dependent with a 25-year-old son.
Why has failure to launch become more prevalent these days? First things first; you can't underestimate the destructive power of a terrible economy on a person's psyche. Unlike a baby boomer who grew up in a time of unprecedented growth, today’s opportunities seem to be saturated for generation Y.
With the labor market so competitive, luck and nepotism play much bigger roles in becoming successful. Because luck and nepotism, are external, unstable and uncontrollable factors toward an outcome, the motivation to work hard may decrease for young adults nowadays.
Nonetheless, the external environment is not all to be blamed. I have come to see the problem of failure to launch as being part of an avoidant generational style, at least in a sizable subgroup. The bad economy may sink people like Zachary, but something fundamental is off.
Research has shown that the concept about future is important because it elicits a cognitive representation of the prospective self and directs future-oriented behavior. However, for Avoiders, thinking about the future is simply daunting.
An Avoider uses an avoidant defense mechanism to put off to tomorrow what needs to be done today. He games himself into thinking that all will be fine—tomorrow. So, he smokes weed to cut down on anxiety; plays video games to fill up his time and “connects” on Facebook for endless hours, while living in the room that he grew up in and should have grown out of by now.
To be fair, not everyone who comes home after college is an Avoider. Many naturally use their home as a base of operations as they mobilize. The economy is tough. They need to work and save money. So, healthy young adults come home in order to find internships, jobs or opportunities and look to launch out again at the first opportunity.
The Avoiders that I see have developed a bad habit; which has lead to an injury to their self esteem. Deep inside, they doubt if they really can be independent, take risks and individuate in the increasingly competitive society.
Despite protests to the contrary, Avoiders stay children, dependent on their parents while remaining in their comfort zones. Their avoidance in thinking about the future greatly reduces their motivation to work on long-term goals, and they turn to seek comforts from instant gratification.
What Can Be Done? Everyone is different, so there is no set way to deal with an Avoider that you may know. The problem is multidimensional. Drugs are often involved, but are by no means the only problem. Lack of economic opportunity can undermine motivation. Fear of competition almost always comes up as a factor. And, there is the not-so-unconscious wish to have someone else take care of you. We all have that fantasy every now and then.
Six Steps to Success:
1. The Parent–Child Bond
While some parents may think that they are helping their children to make better decisions and to fix the consequences of their actions, research has shown that parental codependency may alienate children from their own feelings and debilitate them from self-determination. Ultimately, parents may want to consider setting up boundaries for their children, and also for themselves. Consider requiring a contribution to live at home; or perhaps rent or work. Treat your 25 year old as an adult who is part of the management of the house and not a resident, who feels more like a younger child.
2. Criticism Rarely Works
If you are parenting an adult child who is avoidant, they will take your criticism as part of their problem. Make demands, but stay positive. It is good that your son or daughter experience some anxiety. Too little anxiety mutes ambition (like with chronic marijuana users), too much shuts you down. Healthy anxiety makes us sense an urgency to get things done. Avoidant young adults should experience more of this positive anxiety by insistent reminders and encouragements from parents and friends.
3. Psychotherapy Can Help
I have had many patients like Zachary, and therapy can be incredibly helpful. The key is to objectify the avoidance as a fact of life and engage the stuck patient as a person who wants to be more competent and happy. Occasionally the problem is with the family itself. For instance, in a divorce case, a father may overly encourage dependency because of his depression. In situations like this, a good therapist will try to engage the father in order to help him find a more wholesome place for his neediness.
4. Treat Psychiatric Issues
If there is any major psychiatric problem involved, such as depression and anxiety disorder, it has to be treated as soon as possible. Avoidant young adults may tend to deny their problems and even avoid treatment. Avoidant people suffering from mental health problems simply become more avoidant.
5. Goodbye to Drugs & Booze
This is easier said than done. Drugs like marijuana have a very popular appeal. Most Avoiders that I’ve worked with claim the party line that weed helps with creativity and is medically legal in many states. Truth be told, marijuana can be a powerful way to avoid feeling the anxiety required to mobilize oneself. While drugs and booze don’t cause avoidance, by and large, they both can be powerful contributors to making it worse. Parents—consider going to Al-Anon. Avoider—consider abstinence.
6. Finally, Get the Ball Rolling
Doing something is always better than waiting for something to happen. Work with avoidant young adults to set up small goals (can be as minor as doing grocery shopping) and encourage them to achieve the goals step-by-step. A small job may open the door to something much better. Focus on a healthy daily routine: getting out the house, living a scheduled life and exercising are moves in the right direction. When you are mobilized in the small things of life, you begin to feel better; and naturally you become open to bigger opportunities if they come your way.
We human beings have a natural drive to grow and thrive on our own. Some young adults struggle with independence, only because they have not realized that they can actually succeed. Remember, empowering Avoiders may not be easy, but it can be achieved.
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