For many counselors and educators, the term failure to launch is a familiar part of the American lexicon. Some have referred to this phenomenon as an “epidemic,” and a few prominent clinicians have even described it as a “syndrome.”
This classification is problematic for a number of reasons, including that it fails to consider the longer arc of human history and development. Referring to our clients as having “failed to launch” begins the relationship with judgments and disconnection rather than a sincere desire to understand and help. When we commence our helping relationships by adopting a judgmental and comparative stance, we start off on the wrong foot with our clients and communicate to them that we have little to learn. This is, in effect, very poor modeling of the skills and traits that we hope to instill in them.
What do we mean by failure to launch? Usually this language is used to describe young adults, typically between the ages of 18 to 25 or so, who have not met the traditional benchmarks of adulthood in some fashion. The stereotype usually depicts young 20-somethings who are living in their parents’ basements, playing video games and generally not contributing to the household in a meaningful way.
In general, we observe a lack of motivation and a delay in the acquisition of skills and traits that we typically associate with adulthood: financial autonomy, independence, stable relationships, responsibility and some sense of obligation to society or the collective. We want our adolescents to grow into mature, productive adults. Because numerous examples of these adults are readily available for view, the contrast between them and the so-called failure-to-launch crowd becomes striking.
The English word adolescence comes from the Latin word adolescere, which means “to ripen” or “to grow up.” This is important because young adults, despite some thinking to the contrary, are very much still in adolescence. They are in the period between childhood and adulthood, with a foot in both worlds, so they exhibit characteristics of both stages. This presents unique challenges for those of us who encounter them in this in-between stage.
Although we basically understand what adolescence is, when it ends depends on the culture in which we were raised. For example, in Mexican culture, the quinceañera is held for young women at age 15. This coming-of-age celebration marks the beginning of adulthood in that culture. The Jewish faith marks this moment at age 13 with the tradition of the bar mitzvah and the bat mitzvah. In Japan, an event called Seijin no Hi (Coming of Age Day) occurs at age 20 and marks the passage into adulthood. The Chambri people of Papua New Guinea, sometimes called the “Crocodile People,” use ritual scarification to mark the passage of young males from childhood to adulthood. This ceremony can take place anytime between the ages of 11 and 30.
It is interesting to note the difference in timing for these cultures. I am particularly struck by the range of ages in the Chambri custom. They have perhaps come closest to identifying the actual biological range within which adolescence occurs.
Taking a cognitive behavior approach
Young adults are sometimes just beginning to evaluate the power of their own thinking to positively or negatively shape their world experience. There can be some confusion about the difference between thoughts and beliefs. In my own evaluation, a belief is simply a persistent thought that has become true or seems real to the person. For instance, if I have the thought that God exists, and if I think this way for long enough, it becomes a belief.
I like to use a story that I call “A Tale of Two Apple Trees” to teach this concept. In this story, I have an apple tree on my property. I have a lot of thoughts and beliefs about this apple tree. This apple tree is my property. I bought it, I watered it and I fertilized it. So when a stranger walks by and picks one of my apples, how do I feel? I feel angry. What am I likely to do with my anger? I am likely to have a confrontation with this person. My beliefs led to my emotion, and my emotion led to a behavior.
My neighbor also has an apple tree in her yard. Like me, she has a number of thoughts and beliefs about the apple tree, but they are quite different from mine. She believes that everyone deserves to have food. She also thinks that because she has many dozens of apples on her tree, she can certainly spare a few for someone who wants them. So when someone walks by her property and picks an apple to eat, how does she feel? Most likely she feels happy. What is she likely to do? It is likely she will approach this person and have a positive interaction. Her thoughts led her to certain feelings, and those feelings precipitated specific behaviors.
The point here is not about determining the true nature of apples and apple trees in the world. The point is that, objectively, the same thing happened to both of us: Someone picked an apple off of a tree in our yard. But our respective experiences of that event were drastically different. Based on my beliefs, I experienced anger and then behaved in a confrontational manner. My neighbor experienced happiness and then behaved in a friendly manner. We all must choose what to believe based on our life experiences and what makes the most sense to each of us.
As clinicians and educators, I think we have collectively failed to monitor our own thinking about this population. We know that thoughts lead to feelings, and feelings can lead to actions. Are we applying this knowledge to ourselves in our work with young adults? We should acknowledge that we have chosen certain beliefs about young adults and, as such, these cognitive structures are negatively influencing our experience of working with this population. One of my goals is to bring those structures into our awareness so that we can nobly wrestle with them and make more assertive decisions regarding how we are going to show up in relationships with our clients.
When we use the term “failure to launch,” we clearly display our belief that the young adult has failed in some capacity. I have also heard this called prolonged adolescence; in other words, this particular period of adolescence is taking longer than normal. Who determines what is normal? Struggling is a word often used with this population. They are certainly not thriving and not succeeding like their counterparts, who have not been labeled as “struggling.” Even the term late bloomer, which on the surface seems gentler, indicates that these individuals are not on time in their development.
Let’s assume that you came to see me, a counselor, to help you work through some issue. Perhaps you and your partner come in for couples counseling to work on better communication. How would you feel if I said to you, “Sure, I can help you with your failure to communicate”? My guess is that you would experience an immediate disconnection from me because you may not perceive yourself in that way. I am starting out from the position that you have failed. Or maybe you want to become more assertive with your parent, and I respond by saying, “I would be happy to help you while you struggle to assert yourself with your parent.” Wanting to work on something is not the same thing as struggling with it. This language betrays my internal dialogue about you.
We know that we cannot think ill of our clients, even unintentionally, and then hope to show up with compassion and warmth for them in session. There is a discipline involved in thinking well of clients, actively, so that their best interests are always at the forefront of our efforts. If we begin our work with young adults from a judgmental place, then our feelings and behaviors will follow accordingly.
That is why I advocate for a term I encountered while researching this subject: emerging adulthood. I believe this is a judgment-free term and one that is actually more accurate. Then our primary cognitive framework can begin from an understanding that these people are emerging as adults, in their own individual way, and there may be some issues or difficulty for them during this period.
Around the world
Many factors contribute to the belief that emerging adults have failed in some capacity, but one factor in particular has a very powerful influence on our perceptions of how young adults are developing — whether they leave their parents’ homes within the “proper” time frame. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2014, 32 percent of young adults ages 18-34 were living at home with their parents in the United States. This number is likely higher than most readers might have guessed.
As I thought more about this, I wondered how the rest of the world views this issue. Fortunately, the Pew Research Center has collected extensive data about young adults living at home in Europe. According to this research, Denmark is at the lowest end of the spectrum in Europe, with about 19 percent of young adults ages 18-34 living at home. At the high end of the spectrum is Macedonia, where about 73 percent of young adults in the same age range live at home with their parents. Most of Eastern Europe is in the 50 to 60 percent range. Most of the Scandinavian countries are in the 20 to 30 percent range. Why is there no failure to launch “epidemic” there?
In much of Latin America, including Central and South America, it is common for young people to live at home with their parents until they have completed school, partnered with someone in a long-term romantic relationship or begun their career. In an article from 2007, psychologist and researcher Alicia Facio and her team found that 71 percent of Argentinean emerging adults lived with their parents or other relatives.
Let’s turn to Asia for a final example. A 2014 Huffington Post article titled “Here’s Why It’s Not Weird for Indian Men to Live at Home With Mom and Dad” stated: “Typically, in the Indian culture, returning home after high school or college is not only encouraged, but expected. Even living in America, parents who have migrated here from India have instilled in their children the idea that living with their parents is how Indian ‘joint-families’ work. Most children will stay with their parents up until marriage and some even after marriage, and the Indian ‘society’ accepts this as the norm. There is no taboo, no judgment, and there is no shame — from the male or female perspective. Children are meant to stay with their parents to be taken care of, and as the parents grow older, the children are expected to take care of their parents in their home.”
The key part of this passage for me is the part that states there is no taboo, no judgment and no shame. Unfortunately, the American approach has plenty of all three.
There are actually numerous benefits to young adults staying at home beyond the age of 18 or 19. These benefits are not discussed much in the United States but are well-known to many other cultures around the world.
One thing young adults can do with greater success when they stay at home longer is save money. And nothing helps someone “launch” like having some money saved. In addition, with some healthy boundaries in place, the increased contact between young adults and their parents can actually lead to better long-term familial relationships. As the example about Indian families shows us, young adults who live at home longer are more likely to take care of their parents down the road when the parents may need support. The stability of this living arrangement also reduces anxiety for the young adult, and that readily lends itself to healthier development.
My assertion is that the American cultural emphasis on independence and autonomy is the driving force behind the current so-called failure-to-launch phenomenon. We want our young folks to be independent, but when they are actually capable of this varies widely from a developmental perspective. It is clear that Indian culture places a greater value on family connectivity than on independence. Therefore, there is much less pressure to get young adults out of the home, and thus they have more time to develop in a more stable environment — and with less shame. If American cultural beliefs are in conflict with the biological reality of human development, then perhaps it is our culture that should change.
If a young man is 25 and living at home in Argentina, his family is most likely accepting of this. It is normal for them. They do not see it as a problem provided that this young man is contributing to the household in some way. But a 25-year-old young man living at home in the United States is very likely to be viewed as being delayed somehow or, worse yet, considered lazy. This may be true even if he is contributing to the household, like his Argentinean counterpart. The same exact thing is happening in both situations (just like in my story of the apple trees), but our opinions of these young men depend on our beliefs about what is normal and healthy.
Integration of knowledge
This phenomenon is partly because of a failure to integrate knowledge from a variety of sources and disciplines. Practitioners in our field often draw on knowledge from psychology, but by also integrating information from anthropology, biology and sociology, we can develop a more accurate picture of what healthy human development looks like.
By now I hope I have demonstrated that the accepted timing of the path to adulthood depends entirely upon the culture in which one is raised. Biology tells us that the adolescent brain finishes developing in a person’s mid-20s. This piece of information alone should cause us to rethink our expectations of the average American 18-year-old. This neuroscience is widely known but seldom applied in day-to-day interactions with young adults.
Anthropology demonstrates to us that it is normal human behavior to live at home with one’s parents into one’s 20s. This is happening at very high rates all over the world. This discredits the idea that these other countries are all raising their young adults incorrectly and have been for millennia. This is not an “epidemic”; it is well within the range of normal human behavior. Sociology tells us that societies organized around principles such as family connectivity are sustainable over long periods of time.
When we put the knowledge from all of these disciplines together, it is fairly easy to see where we are going astray in the United States. When I presented this information to a group of clinicians, it was suggested to me that perhaps American culture is itself in adolescence. If that is true, then we should view ourselves as developing rather than as having arrived.
The principal argument I have heard repeated in many circles is that by letting our young adults live at home for a longer period of time, we will be raising a generation of infantilized people who will then be ill-equipped to manage their own lives. This is a valid concern, but I would respond by saying that the countries I have mentioned don’t seem to be creating generation after generation of incapable young people.
These cultures have been operating for centuries, continuously, and despite some current economic challenges, they seem to be making it work. If they were raising such incapable young adults, we probably would have seen their societies collapse decades or even centuries ago.
Having pointed that out, I am not suggesting that all young adults should get a free pass until age 25. On the contrary, we run the risk of enabling them by assuming, without testing them, that they are incapable of certain things. At the same time, we should rethink our basic position that a “healthy” person leaves the home at age 18 or 19 and should sail into adulthood with minimal disruptions from that point. What is healthy in the vast majority of the world appears to be leaving the parents’ home closer to a person’s early to mid-20s.
Both maturity and ability fall on a spectrum, so what I advocate for is the middle path. Some 18-year-olds are going to be very responsible and autonomous, while some 30-year-olds are going to need extra supports. We do not serve our clients well as counselors by comparing them all to the high-performing 18-year-olds. I acknowledge that in many cases young adults are experiencing significant gaps in their skills, engagement or motivation and need intervention to create healthy lives for themselves. In those instances, clinical and educational interventions are indicated.
Part of what we need to do better as counselors is ascertain exactly what the problem is before we intervene. Learning disabilities can play a large role in difficulties related to healthy development. If learning differences are a main cause of a young adult client’s stresses and problems, then it is we who have failed to adequately assess those challenges and make reasonable accommodations.
It has been mentioned to me several times that the difference between the other countries I have named and the United States is that young adults who live at home in those other countries are expected to contribute to the household. All of the clinicians I have asked about this have told me that they have worked with so-called failure-to-launch cases in which they discovered that the primary intervention was actually to coach the parents to communicate their expectations more clearly and to establish better boundaries.
My experience of young adults is that they will take a good deal — every time. So if parents offer full financial support and a free place to live with few or no obligations attached, young adults will gladly accept. This does not indicate pathology in them, however. Instead it indicates intelligence and shrewd negotiating skills, both of which transfer quite well to the real world.
The parents of young adults are often used to parenting children. After all, they have done this for most of their parenting lives when we encounter them as counselors. It requires a deliberate and skillful shift for them to begin parenting their new young adults effectively. Our job as counselors is to help them facilitate a smooth and supportive transition, not to judge them for perceived mistakes that we likely would make were we in their shoes.
In addition, when we encounter young adults and their families in our work, we should take very thorough histories so that we can understand the family’s unique culture and context and what is normal for them. From there, we can more effectively intervene for everyone’s benefit. For example, if the parents need to establish better boundaries, why would we offer intensive therapy to the young adult? If the parents have wonderful communication and boundaries, why would we presume to “teach” them something when we could be offering the young adult coaching and therapy services? The intervention must always flow from a careful and proper assessment of the situation and presenting problems.
The one-size-fits-all approach dictates that if someone uses the term “failure to launch,” then we assume the young adult is to blame for whatever is going on. This is an incredibly simplistic model for an astonishingly complicated developmental process. In short, our task as counselors is to separate legitimate clinical issues from normal, developmental ones.
As clinicians and educators, we need to actively monitor our thinking about young adults and choose a set of cognitions aligned with biology and normal human development. Our schools, clinics and programs need to be free of judgment-laden language that disconnects us from our clients and students.
We need to also recognize the wisdom that comes from a variety of cultures, countries and research-based science. We should acknowledge that we might have some cultural beliefs that, although deeply held, are incongruent with healthy human development. When we encounter these beliefs, we need to work publicly and privately to change them. The result will be better education and treatment for our emerging adults — and a better society as a whole.
Peter Allen is a licensed professional counselor and the program director at College Excel (collegeexcel.com) in Bend, Oregon. The company helps college-bound young adults who have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, depression, anxiety and executive functioning deficits to succeed academically. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Related reading on emerging adulthood from the Counseling Today archives: Validating the quarter-life crisis
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