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Failure to Launch

When young people have trouble leaving home

It’s never been easy being a young adult, and today it seems to be getting harder. More and more, I’ve been seeing wonderful people — mostly young men (but, also women) — having trouble transitioning to adult life.

They live at home, have trouble in school or holding a job and spend far too much time in their room or out having fun. Parents are exasperated and these guys feel trapped.

What’s going on?

A Developmental Moment:

Our twenties is the time to build a platform for the future. It’s as simple as that. For most of us, childhood is a sheltered experience. The vast majority of kids don’t have to worry about where food is coming from or where they have to go. The structure is there. Wake up, go to school, apply yourself, do decently, play with your friends, enjoy the love of your folks and take advantage of the many pleasures of youth.

There is no special platform required. Just be yourself.

The Shelter of Childhood:

In normal development, this gets old. You grow into an adolescent and yearn for freedom and your own life. The shelter of childhood becomes a constriction; and the constriction of childhood begins to outweigh the benefits. Plus, you are more capable, quicker, stronger, and see all the possibilities that lie beyond your family’s home.

Yes, there are anxieties about growing up. Down deep, we all want someone to take care of us, and yet we also want to be independent. Our immature selves fear taking a step out; our maturing selves can’t wait. This is normal. Most young people move on, leave home and develop nicely.

The Challenge of Being a Young Adult:

In your twenties you build new adult platform, which is why people are willing to work so hard at this important time in life. You get a skill, a profession, learn to hold a job and make relationships work. Your new platform provides the structure, funds, food and fun that used to be given to you by your parents.

In fact, there is no one as young as a competent man or women enjoying their adult life to the fullest.

And, there is nothing as tired or demoralizing than a twenty something who has yet to start on his adult journey. Video games, smoking weed and having fun just doesn’t cut it; particularly if it’s still on Mom or Dad’s dime.

Andrew’s Story:

Take Andrew, a young man who has been smoking weed regularly since high school. Andrew made it through high school, because little was asked of him. He subsequently attended college only to flunk out.

Andrew arrived to college ill prepared to self motivate. He woke up late, missed classes, stayed up playing video games or hanging out. If he felt badly, Andrew dealt with it by smoking up. In addition, Andrew stopped going to class, figuring that he was too far behind. After all, he told himself, “What’s the point?” He told his parents that things were hard, but neglected to tell them just how far behind he had fallen.

Andrew didn’t want to admit the truth to himself.

With the semester ending, Andrew has now failed. He’s also depressed and drinking and smoking too much. He comes home because his parents won’t pay for more school, and mopes around, claiming that he’s really looking for a job. His parents are mad — and they are beside themselves with worry. They see their friend’s children succeeding and they feel like failures.

From the Couch:

Andrew is experiencing a developmental failure. The longer he strays off the path of healthy development, the harder it will be to get on track.

There are many possible underlying causes for Andrews’s failure to launch. Good chance he has an underlying depression. He may have executive functioning difficulties or poorly treated Attention Deficit Disorder. He may have been indulged by his parents or suffer from anxiety. Chronic Marijuana ingestion doesn’t help.

What I see in common with many of these struggling souls is a powerful capacity for avoidance. These days, there are many patients like Andrew, whether in high school, college or beyond. Every one of them has a knack of putting off to tomorrow what needs to be done today.

Andrew, at least, made it through high school; and with luck may get back on track.

He has supportive parents, and is receiving treatment. The question is: does Andrew represent a trend? Probably, yes.

The New York Times Pitches In:

A recent piece in The New York Times by Todd Buchholz and Victoria Buchholz reports on Generation Y’s idleness and links it to the recession. Buchholz makes the connection between these young adults and our current economic problems. They claim that young adults raised during recessions grow up with less motivation and drive to leave the home and pursue a career because they believe “luck counts more than effort.”

There is a point here, but I think there is more to it.

From the psychiatric couch, I have come to see avoidance as being part of a generational style; at least in a sizable group. Boys in particular love their video games and have developed an expectation of instant gratification that makes schoolwork and other chores seem too much.

The brain is a developing organ, and we have been feeding our boys (and to some degree girls as well) with brain junk food. Any real achievement requires dedication and sweat equity. Add an attention problem, a dependence on weed or some other factor, and the Andrews of the world are at risk of shutting down when it’s time to self-direct. This is why so many are truly unprepared for the lack of supervision that one encounters at college: hence, failure.

I am by no means criticizing young adults who return to live at home with their parents. It’s a fact of life with a bad economy. I am also quite open to the idea that many kids need a year or two of maturing before heading off to school. In fact, I often recommend it. The problem is with an Andrew (or a Diana) who avoids rather than confronts. For the former, home is a respite, for the latter, it’s a trap.

Here are eight issues to consider if you or someone you love is stuck on the runway:

1. Clinical Depression

Clinical depression affects a person’s energy, level of concentration, and ability to want to work (or even play). Untreated, depression will cut one’s drive and could lead to failure to launch.

2. Untreated Attention Deficit Disorder

The long-term effects of untreated ADD include poor academic performance, lack of social development, and the inability to obtain or hold on to a job. Patients with untreated ADD are also more prone to drug abuse in their adolescent and adult years.

3. Deficits in Executive Functioning

Executive Functioning is best understood as a learning disability involving self organizing and self direction. Such people can feel terrible about themselves. They know they are smart, but just can’t get the work done.

4. Avoidance as a Defense to Stress

This is the primary issue confronting the Failure to Launch patient. They may have ADD or Depression, or smoke too much Marijuana, but they all seem to have learned to deal with stress by avoidance. Tomorrow; later; it’s not that important; I am too far behind anyway are some of the many common excuses.

5. Lies by Omission (active liars often are also substance abusers)

All children learn to lie when they are very young. It’s one of the first acts of defiance in an otherwise healthy 5-year-old. But, most grow out of it, because it is much easier to confront an issue. Plus as we mature (as in a school age child) one’s integrity becomes important. Lying is commonplace in the Failure to Launch population. It’s another method of avoidance, and it is destructive.

6. Habitually Uses Marijuana or Alcohol

Marijuana use among teenagers is a tricky problem. Many kids smoke weed and are relatively unaffected, but there’s a powerful subset which can be undone by the drug. If used as a method of avoidance, Marijuana can be a big part of the Failure to Launch problem. And, if it’s smoked too frequently, weed can decrease motivation, only to compound dysfunction that’s already present.

7. Habitually Gaming or on Facebook

Gaming and Facebook are perfectly fine activities, but for some they are like addictions. I have treated too many twenty somethings who spend immense time in their rooms, and too little time looking for jobs or studying for exams. While pleasurable, a preoccupation with one’s computer is often another kind of avoidance.

8. Peter Pan: Doesn’t See the Value of Adulthood

Often, parents don’t realize it, but constantly giving kids instant gratification can undermine normal development. Healthy frustration is just as important for a growing child as loving indulgences. The ‘Peter Pan Syndrome’ is characterized by young adults who refuse to grow up because they don’t want the instant gratification to end. They fear independence and individuating in a society filled with competing adults.

Your Lovable Child (Brother or Sister):

Many of these stuck young adults are quite lovable. In a fundamental way, they aren’t men or women yet. They often bring out maternal or paternal feelings from those around them, and this softness has been undermining.

Sympathy will not help an avoider.

Typically, teachers and parents have let them off the hook again and again. And, the Andrews of the world tend to game themselves as well. While the average failure to launch may have a few of the eight issues noted above, avoidance is the real killer.

Avoidance is tough to treat because avoidant people avoid dealing with their avoidance. But, I’ve had good results in dealing with these lost souls. First they have to be engaged. Second, avoidance requires confrontation with the same rigor required in dealing with addictions. Third, the underlying issues must be identified and treated. And, forth, the patient may need to be in a structured program or protocol that gets them to taste success. It is a relentless treatment, but if done in good humor, much can be accomplished.


There is much to be done with young men and women who have failed to take off into adulthood. Maturation will help, particularly if they have begun to get back on their feet again.

Often, when such young men come for a consultation, they are ashamed and assaulted by critiques from their parents. They often don’t realize that avoidance plays a crucial role in their unhappiness.

As noted above, these men and women can be approached methodically, with humor and humanity. They avoid, and they will tend to avoid treatment as well.

Once an alliance has been established, and the underlying issues are exposed, treatment often takes off. If a young man like Andrew has begun to work, passes his courses and finds self-respect, he’s more likely to want more.

Remember, human beings have a natural drive for independence. Margaret Mahler, the great developmental researcher, tells us that the first steps of a toddler are away from mother.

The trick is to enable our avoidant boys to discover their power within. It's doable.


I would like to thank Gabrielle Kwarteng for contributing to this piece. Gabrielle has been helping as an intern for The Intelligent Divorce Project. Anyone who has been following my project for the past couple of months has seen her quality of work. Gabrielle is currently a senior at Skidmore College.


The Intelligent Divorce book series, online course and newsletter is a step by step program to handling divorce and intimate relationships with sanity.

You can hear Dr. Banschick on The Intelligent Divorce radio show as well.

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