Failure to Launch: Why Your Twentysomething Hasn't Grown Up...and What to Do About It

Failure to Launch: Why Your Twentysomething Hasn't Grown Up...and What to Do About It

by Mark McConville Ph.D.
Failure to Launch: Why Your Twentysomething Hasn't Grown Up...and What to Do About It

Failure to Launch: Why Your Twentysomething Hasn't Grown Up...and What to Do About It

by Mark McConville Ph.D.


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From an expert in adolescent psychology comes a groundbreaking, timely, and necessary guide for parents of the 2.2 million young adults in America who are struggling to find their way in the world.

In Dr. Mark McConville's decades of experience as a family clinical psychologist, perhaps no problem has been more fraught than that of young adults who fail to successfully transition from adolescence into adulthood. These kids—technically adults—just can't get it together: They can't hold a job, they struggle to develop meaningful relationships, and they often end up back in their parents' spare bedroom or on the couch. In fact, studies show that one in four Americans aged twenty-five to thirty-four neither work nor attend school, and it's a problem that spans all socioeconomic and geographic boundaries.

McConville investigates the root causes of this problem: Why are modern kids "failing to launch" in ever-increasing numbers? The key, McConville has found, is that they are struggling with three critical skills that are necessary to make the transition from childhood to adulthood—finding a sense of purpose, developing administrative responsibility, and cultivating interdependence. In Failure to Launch, McConville breaks these down into achievable, accessible goals and offers a practical guide for the whole family, to help parents instill those skills in their young adults—and to get their kids into the real world, ready to start their lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525542193
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/05/2021
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 96,312
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Mark McConville, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Cleveland, Ohio, specializing in adult, adolescent, emerging adult, and family psychology. A senior faculty member at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, he has lectured, published, and taught widely on the subjects of child development, parenting, and counseling methodology.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1



Going on Sixteen


Why Do Some Kids Struggle with the Transition to Adulthood?


Twenty-two-year-old Nick found his way into my office the same way many of my young clients do: as part of a bargain struck with his parents to get them off his back. I'm a therapist who specializes in working with young people and their families, and as Nick sat across from me for the first time, we took the measure of each other. Nick was an attractive guy with a shock of brown hair and an easy smile, but that smile was wary as he began talking.


"I'm here because my mom and dad think I'm a loser," he said.


As a moderately successful high school student in an affluent inner-ring suburb, Nick had once had what seemed like a preordained path in life. High school to college to job, just like his parents. And Nick had tried college. But once he got there, his promising trajectory stalled, turning into a nine-month binge of partying and missed classes. After two semesters, he was placed on academic probation and required to take a leave of absence from university.


Like many young people in similar circumstances, Nick moved back in with his parents, setting up an "apartment" for himself in the basement of their suburban home, ostensibly to ensure his privacy and simulate independence. His parents, initially frustrated and angry with Nick for his college flameout, resigned themselves to his change in status and committed to helping him get his new life on track.


Initially he showed resolve in managing his life responsibly. He was agreeable and helpful, and grateful for his parents' understanding and support. He found a part-time job at a hardware and garden store, which suited his interest in the outdoors and working with his hands. In short order, he was elevated from stocking shelves and loading heavy items to interacting with customers and advising them regarding lawn-care products. His parents were encouraged, seeing this as an indication of initiative and ambition.


By the time I met Nick, however, this was ancient history. The progress in his work life had stalled, as he failed to expand his hours at the store or to find a second job. In evenings after work, he had established a second home at a neighborhood bar, reconnecting with friends from high school and settling in with tavern regulars. Nick often bought rounds for the house, a gesture that elevated his status and offered a sense of belonging in the bar's microsociety.


"It's just like in Cheers," Nick confided to me with self-satisfaction.


But while he was finding a sense of connection and belonging at the bar, Nick's relationship with his parents was deteriorating in predictable fashion. Since his work shifts started later in the day, Nick's drinking sessions extended late into the night. With increasing frequency, he came home in various states of inebriation and slept past noon. On occasion, he wouldn't come home at all, spending the night with his girlfriend, also a tavern regular. His "household citizenship" likewise deteriorated, as his demeanor became increasingly reminiscent of the surly sixteen-year-old he had only recently been.


"Honestly, he treats our home like a rooming house," his mother, Renée, confided with exasperation during my initial meeting with his parents, "complete with a stocked refrigerator, kitchen privileges, and full maid and laundry service! He just takes everything we provide for granted."


Nick's parents were good, solid people. His mother went back to work as her children left for college; his father owned and ran a successful small manufacturing business. Both were devoted to the welfare and growth of their children, with an older son approaching college graduation and a younger daughter floating gracefully through tenth grade. But by the time we first met concerning Nick, they were beside themselves with frustration.


Renée was a worrier who couldn't stop herself from trying to be "helpful" in all sorts of ways. She offered suggestions about what Nick might do to improve his prospects and reminded him of opportunities and obligations as they approached. Nick's term for these ministrations was "nagging," and his responses followed a predictable curve of escalating irritability and anger. Eventually Nick and his parents had a series of ugly shouting matches, the outcome of which was an agreement that they jointly consult a therapist-me.


Nick's father, Seth, was thoughtful and soft-spoken, and his approach to Nick's floundering was man-to-man and businesslike. He periodically arranged appointments for the two of them to meet, often over lunch, where he would press Nick regarding his plans for the future while offering ideas and suggestions. These meetings went well on the surface but failed to generate any meaningful change in Nick's behavior. At his best, Nick conceded that his parents were doing their best to be helpful. At his worst, he saw them as intrusive and manipulative.


Seth and Renée's barely concealed agenda was that Nick return to school-where he might learn a trade commensurate with his talents and interests-landscape technology, or turf grass management, perhaps. "We just want to see him doing something that leads to a more promising future," Renée explained. This seemed the logical way for Nick to escape his minimum wage job and the artificial bubble of his tavern-based social life.


In early sessions with me, Nick periodically voiced resolution to move in a constructive direction. In fact, he had made some effort to break out of his rut. He had repeatedly asked for more hours at the store, but these were slow to materialize. For the most part, though, his focus was on his parents' attempts to manage his behavior. His attitude vacillated between a subdued concession that he was frustrated with his life and an unpersuasive confidence that he had everything figured out. One week he would discuss (halfheartedly) his plans to research community college associate degree programs, and the next he would criticize his parents for not believing in him. He accepted that he needed to find a way to make and save money, with the objective of moving out, but his resolve was weak, and his words weren't leading to substantial action.


Nick was stalled, and he wrestled with acknowledging it. His life path, just like his involvement in therapy, traced a circular loop of lip service and inaction-heading nowhere.


"This isn't how I thought my son's life would turn out," said Seth. "It's like he's twenty-two going on sixteen. I want him to be financially secure. I want him to have a home of his own. I want him to have a partner and a family of his own someday.


"But first I have to get him out of my basement."





What are parents in situations like this to do? How should I, as a therapist, advise Seth and Renée? Meeting them in my office, I encountered two caring and resourceful people who were willing to do almost anything if it would help their son escape the rut he had created for himself. But they were between a rock and a hard place. Every tactic they tried-urging, cajoling, hinting, suggesting, supporting, guiding-was met with increasing irritation, conflict, and emotional distance.


Should they be more emotionally supportive of Nick, given that he was experiencing his own frustrations? Unfortunately, it seemed like the more sympathetic they were, the less Nick was motivated to advocate for himself. Their empathy appeared only to soften Nick's resolve.


Should they draw a line and refuse him further support? They considered this strategy, knowing in their hearts that something like this might eventually become necessary. But where would he go if they kicked him out? They feared-with good reason-that removing him from their orbit entirely would decrease their opportunity to exert influence, driving him to become even more entangled with his "going nowhere" social circle.


Seth and Renée's experience is devastatingly familiar to many of us. We love our children so much, we see such incredible potential in them, and we desperately want them to succeed. Yet they struggle to find their way in the world, and we're not sure how to help them. When they were small, we could ground them or withhold a privilege to get them to behave. But once a child becomes an adult (defined as eighteen in most states), relationships with parents become, at least legally, voluntary on both sides.


We are continually trying to redefine our relationships with these adult children-who are sometimes living under our roof, sometimes taking our financial help, and sometimes making what we consider to be poor decisions. What is our role in their lives? How much should we help them? How hard should we push them? We're committed to providing our kids with the help they need, yet we often lack sufficient access or leverage to influence their development. We still have all the guilt, all the anxiety, all the pressures of being a parent . . . but we no longer have the power to enforce, well, anything.


I'm here to tell you: You're not alone. A whole generation of parents and kids is dealing with these same issues. But why? Why are more kids than ever struggling with the transition into adulthood? How do we parent an adult who still acts like, as Nick's dad said, he's "twenty-two going on sixteen"?


The Failure to Launch Syndrome


In my private psychology practice, I've worked with hundreds of young adults and their families, grappling with just these issues. Kids who are having a hard time getting a foothold in their adult lives. Parents who feel helpless to assist them. Families strained to the breaking point by these conflicting pressures. This phenomenon has become so common that many clinicians call it failure to launch syndrome.


(If you're wondering: Yes, the name is a nod to the 2006 movie in which a pair of desperate parents hire Sarah Jessica Parker to wrangle their ne'er-do-well son, Matthew McConaughey, to move out of their house. And no, to the best of my knowledge, this has never worked in real life. Hence this book.)


Why is failure to launch syndrome even a thing? One reason: Today's parents stay engaged in their twentysomethings' lives much longer than parents in previous generations. In fact, a recent study by the Pew Research Center found that a third of today's twenty-five- to twenty-nine-year-olds live with their parents-three times as many as in 1970. A host of factors account for this change. For one, it's harder today for a twentysomething to earn an independent living, as real wages have dipped and housing costs have risen gradually over the past half-century. Often the childhood bedroom at mom's or dad's is the only affordable option. On top of that, the educational requirements for today's workforce, compared with that of the manufacturing economy of yesteryear, are considerable-and expensive. Education requires financing, and financing requires, in most cases, parents.


As if all this isn't enough, there has also been a massive change in our culture's norms around sex and marriage. For centuries, marriage was the most reliable catapult for launching twentysomethings from cohabitation with and financial dependence upon their parents. But beginning with the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, sex outside of marriage has become a nonissue for most people, and marriage is no longer a certainty. In 1960, 70 percent of the adult population was married, and an unmarried thirty-year-old was socially suspect. Today, just 50 percent of the adult population is married, and the median age of marriage has shifted from the early to late twenties. It's no wonder more and more post-high-school and post-college twentysomethings live at home with mom and dad.


But more underlies this phenomenon than just the economic realities of today's world, the changing educational requirements for today's workforce, and the evolving cultural norms for being regarded as an adult. There's something underneath the surface, something harder to measure.


At the heart of much of this failure to launch phenomenon is anxiety. Young people today are more anxious than generations past about leaving behind the supportive framework of parents to take the leap into what's next . . . and some of that is due to the parents themselves. (Ourselves, I'll say-I'm also a parent of two.) Today's eighteen-year-olds have grown up in a world largely overseen and managed by adults-in school, of course, but also in after-school programs, sports teams (as well as sports camps and skill-development programs), youth theater, music programs-the list of adult structured activities and avocations for today's youth is exhaustive. This means that today's high school graduate, however much he or she complains about the overinvolvement and micromanagement by adults in his or her life, continues to rely on that involvement and management.


According to some high-school-based college counselors with whom I've spoken, this often leaves students at high school graduation less prepared for the transition into adulthood than their peers from previous generations. They may be well prepared academically, but they are more reluctant to take ownership of their lives, more intimidated by the post-high-school world (whether college or full-time employment), and more sensitized to the possibilities of rejection and failure.


In short, they worry more and risk less.


We get the same picture from college mental health services. Students of previous generations would have been hard-pressed to find the mental health services on college campuses. Today these services are flooded; in many instances, it can takes weeks to get an appointment for a nonemergency situation.


When I began my clinical practice in adolescent and family psychotherapy decades ago, the mantra for professionals like me, working with teenagers, was "We've just got to get him or her to age eighteen!" Why? Because back then, conflict with parents typically diminished significantly as age eighteen and high school graduation approached, when the "real world" of necessity took over the job of "parenting." A therapist's task was difficult-because adolescents can be challenging-but also simpler. Because if we could get them to control their impulses just a bit, exercise a modicum of judgment, stop momentarily to anticipate consequences, take school a little more seriously, cut back on alcohol or pot, learn how to lessen conflict with parents-they could arrive at age eighteen intact and ready to launch. The realities and necessities of the post-high-school world would take over from there.


And that's what happened, most of the time.


But something changed.


In the mid-1980s, when the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute began asking first-year students if they "felt overwhelmed by all I had to do," less than 20 percent answered in the affirmative. By 2010, that number was almost 30 percent. In 2017-just seven years later-it jumped to more than 40 percent.

Table of Contents

Part I Where Are The Adults? Why Growing Up Isn't What It Used to Be 1

Chapter 1 Twenty-Two Going on Sixteen: Why Do Some Kids Struggle with the Transition to Adulthood? 3

Chapter 2 Is There Life After High School? The First Big Transition in a Young Person's Life 21

Chapter 3 When Will I Feel Like an Adult? The New Science of Emerging Adulthood 43

Part II How to Adult: The Developmental Skills Needed in Emerging Adulthood 57

Chapter 4 Skill 1-Becoming Responsible: Emerging Adults Must Learn How to Take Ownership of Their Lives 59

Chapter 5 Skill 2-Becoming Relational: Emerging Adults Must Retool Their Relationships and Find New Sources of Support 83

Chapter 6 Skill 3-Becoming Relevant: Emerging Adults Must Find a Sense of Direction 109

Part III How Parents Can Help: What You Can (and Can't) Do for Your Kid 129

Chapter 7 How Guilty Should You Feel? Own Your Role-and Move Past It 131

Chapter 8 Untangling Boundaries: Reshaping the Relationship, Not Fixing Behaviors 159

Chapter 9 The Mystery of Motivation: Creating Necessity for Your Struggling Transitioner 185

Chapter 10 Breaking the Enabling Trap: Supporting (Not Coddling) Your Struggling Transitioner 203

Chapter 11 Communication and Emotional Support: Staying Connected Even When Times Are Tough 233

Chapter 12 Dear Twentysomething: A Letter to Your Struggling Transitioner 257

Afterword: A Hard-Won Crown 277

Appendix: Getting Professional Help 281

Acknowledgments 287

Bibliography 291

Index 293

About the Author 305

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