Failure-to-launch grown-ups who are stuck in adolescence can cause endless pain for their parents and other family members. Family tensions mount, with concerns about how and when the family member who has failed to launch will be able to become a self-sustaining independent adult.
Genesis of Failure to Launch
Well-intentioned parents of youngsters with learning disabilities, social anxiety, attention deficit disorder, and other cognitive or emotional deficits may find their lives organized around efforts, both emotional and financial, to nurture and protect. With the goal of promoting healthy development, they try hard to be realistic and to not expect or demand too much. But as their offspring enter their 20s and beyond, it often becomes increasingly clear that their parental efforts have backfired. Development is stalled, and now way too much is expected of the parents and way two little of their grown child.
Undoing Old Patterns
Helping the failure-to-launch offspring requires that parents learn new ways to motivate adult behaviors in their grown child. Often parents do not realize that they are inadvertently reinforcing the increasingly dependent, adolescent-like behaviors that they wish so much to change. The failure-to-launch offspring has become too comfortable having a free or very low-cost room in a nice house with wi-fi, meals, and often free cell phone, laundry services, medical insurance, and perhaps a car. Despite any protest to the contrary, all of this provides little incentive for unlaunched adults to take actions that will move them toward self-sustaining lives on their own. And as parents with failure-to-launch offspring know, pleading, yelling, and begging does not work. Their offspring’s offending behaviors seem to be remarkably resilient in withstanding what some might consider noxious, controlling behavior from parents.
Coaching for Parents of Failure-to-Launch Offspring
But change is possible when parents get help. Behaviorally-oriented coaching can help parents to discern and discontinue habitual ineffectual behaviors; and, instead, to modify the reinforcers necessary to create change.
With failure-to-launch offspring, behaviors that parents want to eliminate are tied to specific consequences. For example, smelly laundry, rather than being taken down by the parents to the laundry room, will be removed and tossed out. If failure-to-launch youngsters are not up before noon, they may not be given keys to the car. Alternatively, parents may charge rent and give dollar credits against rent for positive behaviors that they want to encourage*.
One of the most important aspects of making this approach work is that the behavior/consequence system is not only clearly articulated and understood but is exercised with 100% consistency. We know from behavioral training that the habits that are hardest to break are those that are inconsistently reinforced (“intermittent reinforcement”). Thus, both parents need to be 100% on board and need to start with behaviors that they are totally unambivalent about supporting, with consistent adherence to consequences.
Growth for the failure-to-launch family member can occur by engaging a family therapist skilled at the step-by-step work needed to modify family dynamics.
Additional Relevant Reading
- Failure to Launch: When an Adult Child Needs Help Growing Up
- Failure to Launch Treatment Approaches
- Getting Help for an Addicted Loved One
Dr. Marsha Vannicelli is a nationally recognized author and lecturer who has trained and supervised scores of clinicians who work with couples that struggle with parenting issues.
*This approach is consistent with some recent work by David Gasfried known as contingency management, in which an addict’s need for constant hits is short-circuited by delivering small monetary rewards when he stays sober. Multiple studies have found that the small rewards can trigger the same part of the brain that releases dopamine from drug or alcohol abuse, and thus satisfy an addict’s cravings.
© 2023 Marsha Vannicelli