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Jeffery S. Smith M.D.
Jeffery S. Smith M.D.

Launching Your Young Adult

When young people get stuck, what can parents do?

Kenneth Freeman/Flickr CC-By-Sa
Source: Kenneth Freeman/Flickr CC-By-Sa

Everyone agrees that the Failure to Launch syndrome is terribly painful to parents and their young adults having trouble entering into adult life. It's so disheartening to see a young person going nowhere. From my experience with both parents and young people, the biggest problem is that families, even when they know the right things to do, can’t do them. Why? Wives and husbands have become stuck fighting one another instead of helping their young adult.

I call it “polarization paralysis.” Pretty much 100 percent of the time, when teens and young adults are having trouble, the parents become polarized. One is naturally the “softie,” while the other is the more hard-nosed one. Often it is Mom who doesn’t have the heart to set limits and dole out consequences, but not always. Fathers are capable of wishful thinking, too. “We’ll just have a heart-to-heart talk and our son will turn over a new leaf.” What makes this so hard to overcome is that the soft one gets softer to compensate for the tough one, while the harsh one exaggerates just to compensate for the other’s weakness. They get further apart and fight more desperately till they give up and let the young person do whatever he or she wants.

Young people can’t even begin to handle that responsibility. Not only are they behind their peers in learning problem solving skills, but feeling so badly about themselves, they are mainly focused on just not feeling the pain.

How does polarization paralysis get started? One parent was probably more harsh from the beginning and the other probably was on the soft side, but they were not that far apart. When the young person started avoiding challenges and falling behind, the parents were distressed. The soft one tried to use understanding and support, while the harsh one tried what came naturally, tough love, with the emphasis on tough. The young person responded as one would expect, sitting back and letting the parents fight it out. The youngster is testing the parents’ ability to provide a strong and united front and the parents are failing the test.

What to do?

The first and most important thing parents need to do is:

Compromise on their differences to present a unified front.

This means that parents who are in a struggle over who is right and who is wrong absolutely must find a middle ground. Until they can get together, no one is in charge and their young person is not capable of raising him or herself. Parents, if you can’t do this on your own, then you need help. Each decision on how to deal with your young adult must be a joint one.

After that, I take the following steps with parents and their young adults:

1. A careful assessment of the young person’s strengths, weaknesses, interests, and dreams.
2. Help parents provide outside motivation by developing a unilateral contract with positive incentives for forward-moving behaviors and and negative consequences for backwards ones. Motivation, at this stage, must come first from the parents.
3. Ongoing coaching and mid-course corrections with the parents to make sure the incentives are having their intended effect and the process of developing adult skills is moving forward.
4. Make sure the young person has counseling and support to help stay on track.

See more by Dr. Smith at

About the Author
Jeffery S. Smith M.D.

Jeffrey Smith, M.D., teaches at the psychiatry residency program at New York Medical College.

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