Although failure to launch syndrome is not an official mental health diagnosis, acknowledging and treating it is crucial, particularly for high net worth families. This term refers to young adults who remain dependent on their parents rather than establishing a separate and independent life as self-sufficient adults. The syndrome frequently coincides with other mental health struggles including anxiety, depression, and addiction.
Failure to launch tends to be prevalent in affluent families, where their children may lack the motivation to pursue careers, complete education, or find purpose in life.
Our team works with people who have mental illness and substance use disorders. Failure to launch is often entangled in the above issues. The good news: it can be tackled and treated successfully. It is also something that can be prevented and that goes back to one of our core principals at BHA, which is mitigating health risk.
In an effort to spread awareness about failure to launch syndrome, its treatment strategies, and preventive measures, I approached Rachele Vogel, Psy.D., a behavioral health expert, to provide her valuable insights.
How do you define failure to launch?
I consider someone struggling with failure to launch as an individual developmentally stalled in adolescence. Someone who has not transitioned successfully into adulthood from a place of autonomy, self-regulation, and independence.
Who is susceptible to failure to launch syndrome?
It tends to occur in people who have struggled to complete school or hold down a job after school, people who struggle to maintain close friendships and are isolated, people who struggle with cannabis and gaming addictions, people who live with their parents who meet all of their basics needs for them (or individuals who live independently with access to endless resources), and people who lack motivation for change.
In my experience, it's most common in kids who lack a sense of identity or passion, struggle with anxiety and/or depression, and grow up in an environment where parents/caregivers do everything for them. Anxiety is unpleasant — if a kid is conditioned to never being uncomfortable, he or she isn't all of a sudden going to wake up ready to take on the world.
Kids need to make mistakes and be taught how to care for themselves. Life is uncomfortable, and struggle is part of the journey for identity development. Limits are loving. A kid who has been sheltered from the stress and anxiety inherent to life, social interaction, decision-making, heartbreak, hearing no, and not getting what they want, is going to have a hard time in the real world. Helicopter parenting promotes failure to launch.
How is failure to launch treated by therapists?
By working with the entire family and assessing accommodating behaviors – or things people are doing in the individual’s life that prohibit or stunt growth – and slowly making changes to build independent living skills.
How can a health advisor support this treatment?
A health advisor can provide support by sticking to the treatment road map and helping the family reduce support. These changes will impact the entire family system, so everyone is going to have to be willing to be uncomfortable.
Why isn’t failure to launch talked about as much as other mental health struggles?
Maybe because it’s hard to recognize, especially if what the adult wants is for their child to be home, where they know they are safe. It can be hard for a parent to admit that their child is failing.
What advice do you have on recognizing failure to launch?
Consider your child’s level of resilience and ability to problem-solve independently. How do they manage their emotions and handle life stressors? What has the child been exposed to and what might be hindering the growth?
What is your approach to managing and recovering from failure to launch?
In today's world, kids can live behind a screen and share photos that are staged and filtered. There are no filters in real life. I think it would be helpful for adults to be aware of how they are raising their children and if they are encouraging independence. Children learn through scaffolding, which means providing enough support for the child to learn a new skill with the ultimate goal of becoming self-reliant.
People can recover from failure to launch. However, the change may be gradual, and it requires a high level of willingness to be uncomfortable — for both the parent learning to say no or follow through on a limit, as well as the child/adolescent experiencing new challenges.