Failure to Launch – How to Help
What can be done to help young people?
Posted March 26, 2020 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
By Gabriel Banschick
Many young adults struggle to launch from their family of origin. This is a well-described phenomenon that causes considerable pain both to the person affected and their surrounding family. While there are no easy answers in dealing with this issue, and each case is completely unique, here are some pointers that may help those involved.
This is a tough problem to solve without professional help.
Individual and Family Therapy:
FTL is a behavioral pattern that is often complicated by underlying psychiatric conditions that can cause significant impairment to the individual—as well as to their family. As such, individual and family therapy should be the first line of treatment, including medications, when appropriate.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is probably an individual therapy modality that is well suited to treating the lack of motivation that is typical of FTL individuals. CBT is also well-suited to treating anxiety, which often is present before the onset of FTL, or it can be a result of FTL. CBT has been shown to be effective in treating anxiety1.
Young people who are failing to launch may need to be assessed by a qualified psychiatrist. Some suffer from longstanding depression or anxiety. Others have an addiction, or may have underlying trauma that is triggered by emerging adulthood and requires intervention, either with appropriate therapy, like CBT, or with medication when appropriate.
Occasionally, underlying medical issues can come into play that need to be ruled out. A good evaluation is a good place to begin.
While each case is different, parents should consider reducing their support, in consultation with a therapist who is familiar with the clinical profile of the young adult. Laundry services and food preparation may need to be withheld2. Unnecessary expenses, such as movie channels or any other service that may exacerbate passivity, can be withheld, too, and pocket money should be limited as well. In conjunction with the removal of support, the young adult should be encouraged to get a job, internship or volunteer opportunity.
Getting out of the house and mobilizing is the first step to reversing FTL.
Mentoring and Coaching:
Sometimes the relationships between parents and offspring are strained. In such cases, it is better to involve an outside person, such as a coach who specializes in FTL. The young adult may be more inclined to accept supervision and be accountable to a neutral person. Participating in sessions with professional coaches can yield success with college students struggling with ADHD, which suggests that similar success may be achieved with FTL young adults, many of whom experience ADHD symptoms3.
Garrett and Moskovitz recommend that in severe cases young adults should be put in a highly structured environment with a rigid routine and increased supervision4. Programs that cater to young men and women include short-term wilderness programs (2-5 months) which take young adults into a wilderness area, where they learn to take care of themselves, including food preparation, washing their own clothes, and setting up their tents.
These programs aim to teach self-sufficiency, as well as the ability to cooperate and get along with others while living in close quarters. These programs usually offer individual and group therapy.
Living in a drug-free environment can be a great first step toward rehabilitation, particularly if underlying drug issues are present. When there is significant chemical dependency, hospitalization may be required to detoxify.
Available research indicates that therapeutic wilderness programs can result in significant improvement5. Another solution (often used as a second step, after wilderness), are residential programs, which offer much of the same as wilderness but in less restrictive settings.6 Participants live either in a dormitory setting or room in apartments with others in the program. Again, the participants learn self-sufficiency, cooperation with others, and social skills. In addition, the programs offer the possibility of attending college, or technical school, or working. (These programs are costly; however, some of them offer scholarships, based on need).
Failure to launch is a failure to take the necessary step of emancipating and moving toward becoming a healthy, independent adult. It may present with underlying issues such as anxiety, depression, low resilience and lack of executive functioning. However, parents often have a role as they become enablers by supporting the young adult, financially and otherwise.
Emancipation and emerging into adulthood is a challenging task for everyone. When a person fails to do so, the failure may reinforce underlying issues, whether the problem is chemical dependency, addiction, depression, anxiety or a past history of trauma—which then makes it even more difficult to launch.
There are a number of approaches to deal with this issue, and sometimes more than one needs to be engaged to help the young person launch.
Gabriel Banschick is a 3rd-year medical student at Tel Aviv University. He has been conducting research and contributing to this blog for the past several years.
1. Olatunji, B., Cisler, J., & Deacon, B. (2010). Efficacy of cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders: a review of meta-analytic findings. The Psychiatric clinics of North America, 33(3), 557-577.
2. Lebowitz, E. (2016). Failure to Launch”: Shaping Intervention for Highly Dependent Adult Children. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry, 55(2), 89–90.
3. Prevatt, F., & Yelland, S. (2015). An Empirical Evaluation of ADHD Coaching in College Students. Journal of Attention Disorders, 19(8), 666-677.Journal of Adolescent Research, 20(5), 577-603.
4. Garrett, C., & Moskovitz, A. (2017). Autonomous Programming: The Benefits and Challenges of Emerging Mentorship Models. Journal of Therapeutic Schools
5. Bettmann, J.E., Tucker, A., Behrens, E. et al. Changes in Late Adolescents and Young Adults’ Attachment, Separation, and Mental Health During Wilderness Therapy. J Child Fam Stud 26, 511–522 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-016-0577-4
6. Curtis, A., Briggs, J., & Behrens, E. (2018). Young Adults in Residential and Outdoor Behavioral Health Programs: Preliminary Outcomes from the Practice Research Network of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs. Journal of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, 10. doi: 10.19157/JTSP.issue.10.01.03