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Signs of “Failure to Launch” In Young Adults

Signs of “Failure to Launch” in Young Adults

Est. reading time: 4 mins
Posted Under: Interviews

Clinically Reviewed by: Amanda Fialk, PhD, LCSW, LICSW


An Interview with Amanda Fialk, Ph.D., LCSW, CASAC – Partner and Chief Clinical Officer at The Dorm

Arrested development. ‘Late bloomers’. Having trouble ‘adulting’.

There are many colloquial terms used to describe the experience of young people who may be struggling with autonomy and independence, and one of the most common is the description that a young person has ‘failed to launch’ or experienced ‘failure to launch’. We come across this expression time and time again used to describe a teen who’s not transitioning well at college or a young adult unable to move out of the house.

But what does “failure to launch” really mean? How is it identified and what are the best ways to support young people in their most vulnerable state? We sat down with Amanda Fialk, Ph.D., LCSW –  Partner and Chief of Clinical Services at The Dorm, to learn more.

Q: We often hear about the term “failure to launch”, but what does this mean to you and your industry?

A: Every stage of development requires the “mastery” or completion of critical objectives or developmental tasks to ensure a transition to the following stage of development. Adolescents and young adults often either have not achieved mastery of the tasks of previous stages and/or are struggling to achieve mastery of the tasks of their current stage and as a result present as “stuck.”

Q: What does “failure to launch” look like in a young person? Are there any indicators that you look out for?

A: A young adult who has failed to “launch” may be unable to finish college, be stuck living at home versus independently in his/her own apartment, or be unable to secure or to maintain gainful employment. These young adults often lack basic independent living skills such as an ability to manage a budget, cook and clean for themselves, do laundry, or navigate their social lives with maturity, accountability and responsibility.

Q: What are some common misconceptions around this topic?

A: I have found there are two primary misconceptions. The first is the characterization of these young people as “bad.” Young people who are struggling to launch are not “bad”; rather, they are often plagued with undiagnosed or improperly diagnosed mental illness(es). Similar to a diabetic who has not been diagnosed or treated properly, these young people will present as symptomatic.

The second misconception is that they are “unfixable” or a “lost cause.” With proper treatment, support and clinically-based skills training, these young people have a wonderful prognosis. Many of our clients at The Dorm, after a proper course of treatment, proceed to lead healthy, fulfilling and productive lives.

Q: What do you think is contributing to this problem for young adults today?

A: Technology and social media have complicated the developmental landscape for young people. Technology has enabled people to rely heavily on resources outside of self to meet their most basic needs. Food and groceries can be delivered with one click of a button, eliminating the need to learn to cook, to grocery shop or to socialize over a meal at a restaurant. Laundry is picked up from the home, cleaned and returned folded and ready to be put away so kids never learn how to use a washer or a dryer. Today, you can use an app to arrange a cleaning service for your apartment or house with an hour’s notice which means young people don’t have to learn about the discipline of a cleaning schedule.

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Smartphones have diminished the quantity and quality of face-to-face social interactions, leaving young people with significant social skill deficits, as communication occurs predominantly behind the safety of a screen. Social media has taken a toll on the self-esteem of our youth as they are constantly comparing what they feel on the inside (such as complicated feelings of uncertainty and emotional ups and downs) to the perfectly filtered and curated images that their peers and celebrities post on Instagram or Facebook that makes life appear “perfect” and “uncomplicated”.

Q: How can family and support systems best support a teenager or young adult who is struggling with independence and moving forward in their life?

A: Provide them with help before things spiral out of control. One can choose to get off of an elevator on the 5th floor rather than waiting for the elevator to come crashing to the basement. The earlier someone gets help the better the prognosis. Lay boundaries and clear expectations and allow your child to experience the natural consequences of being “stuck.” Change is incredibly scary and overwhelming — so overwhelming that staying stuck can feel safe and comfortable. In order for young people to become motivated to change, they often must feel discomfort in their present circumstances. Too often, parents rob their children of the necessary opportunity of experiencing that discomfort by saving them from the discomfort. For instance, young adult male ‘Joe’ is sad because he has been unable to maintain employment and cannot afford to go out every weekend with his friends who do have a steady income. Joe’s parents find it difficult to tolerate watching him get emotional when he cannot join his friends for weekend outings so they give Joe money. Joe does not experience the natural negative consequence (missing out on the fun with friends) of not having a job and thus continues to be content not working, not applying to jobs, living at home and getting money from his parents.

Q: How does The Dorm approach treatment for clients who are struggling with “failure to launch?”

A: Treatment must start with a solid assessment of all aspects of the young person’s life. At the Dorm, we provide biological, psychological, social, recreational, familial, vocational, educational and nutritional assessments. Treatment goals and objectives flow from the findings of the assessment as we aim to treat all clients in both an individualized and holistic manner. The treatment goes beyond conventional individual and group therapy. For instance, treatment in many cases includes health and wellness activities and the identification and participation in hobbies and passions outside of treatment. We believe in partnering with clients as allies in the treatment planning process rather than as authorities in positions of power. When young adults feel ownership over their treatment plan they tend to be more invested in their recovery process.

Finally, we believe that comprehensive and effective treatment for a young person struggling with emancipation must include the family. Every parent at The Dorm is given his/her own clinician who offers guidance and support around issues such as attachment, enabling, codependency, boundaries, roles and communication.

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