Failure to launch, what is it? The term comes from a 2006 Hollywood comedy where Matthew McConaughey refuses to move out of his parents’ house and lives like a teenager into his thirty’s. The term refers to this refusal or inability to move out and become a fully developed independent adult. It was a punchline back then, but at this point, we’re just upset and worried about the wellbeing of our young adult children. A poll in New Jersey revealed that 45% of young adults between 18 and 34 (34!!!) are living at home with their parents, even if they are employed. That’s almost half of all young people taking on Matthew McConaughey’s role, but I don’t think anyone is laughing.
We want our children to succeed… Badly. Very badly. What kind of parent would you be if you didn’t?!
Unfortunately, this intense desire to see our children succeed is leading to the failure to launch phenomenon. There’s just something about our parenting style that’s not working: for us, nor for our children.
The generation where failure to launch was first observed as a serious trend is the generation of kids born between 1980 and 2000. Experts and laypersons alike both attest to cultural shifts going on during this period. Around this time, fears about the job market and the future possibilities of our children started to grow. This fear shaped the way we parent and educate our children. Intensive college preparation, elite sports teams, lessons for this and that, cutting play-time: we thought these were the things we needed for our kids to succeed. Parents started to demand higher and higher achievements from their children, perfect performance because they believed the alternative was an utter failure.
I, yours truly, was a child born during the generation at risk of failing to launch. My childhood involved college-preparation and competitive education. I grew up afraid of being ‘average’ because average was ‘unacceptable.’ My teachers lectured about failing college and never finding a job… if I didn’t learn today’s material. I remember headlines like ‘graduate school is the new high school’, ‘unemployment skyrockets’ and feeling terrified of my future. Even though I was always in the top of my class, I wondered would that even be enough to cut it? Could I get into med school or a Ph.D. program? If not would I be a cashier at the grocery store like the TV said? Doing just fine, was not fine. I had to be the best or nothing.
My experience was not unique, we all got the run-around about the scarcity of jobs and the rising cost of living. Our parents and educators were handing over the baton of insecurity to us children. Even though the older generations believed they were motivating us to work hard, something didn’t click. Fear, self-doubt, and feelings of inadequacy grew like wildfire among us.
Experts agree that a lack of faith in one’s own abilities is the key to understanding why failure to launch happens. The generation of young people stuck at home aren’t lazy or trying to free-load, they are genuinely afraid of being able to ‘make it’ in the real world. This is partly due to the social climate of the era, but mostly it has to do with parenting. The message your child is receiving might be very different from what you intend. If you pack in the activities because you want to enrich your child’s world, they may be receiving the message that they are inadequately skilled for what’s coming next. The college prep, the pressure, and the demands make sure that your child always feels afraid of being average. Parents might think that fear is constructive, but it can be destructive too.
With all of the activities we pack in for our kids, the modern childhood is now pretty much free of boredom. If you think this is a victory because your kids aren’t wasting their time, you might be wrong. Experts claim that boredom, a negative feeling, challenges children to think creatively and motivates them to develop new interests. Having set activities or endless amounts of toys could be stifling your child’s ability to entertain herself and experiment. Can you think of a time where boredom stirred the desire to try something new? Explore? Read? Actually, practice a craft or instrument? Boredom is not the enemy, even if you’ve been conditioned to think so.
Okay, so now that we know what’s behind the “Failure to Launch” problem, what can we do about it?
It is best to start thinking about this as early on in your child’s life as possible. However, you can still make improvements in your older child’s life to help prepare them for adulthood.
Encourage setting their own goals
Working towards short and long term goals will help prepare your child for the reality of adult life. After high school, we all have to create and enforce our own life choices; at a certain point, no one can do this for us anymore. This can be very daunting without any prior experience. Many young people report fears of making a choice, and feeling uncertain about what they want. This might be due to having little or no experience with setting their own goals in the past. If your youngster wishes to accomplish something, even if it seems ridiculous to you, don’t interfere. Just let them work towards it so they can feel the reward of achieving something in the end.
Learn to be a little more hands-off
Don’t over-schedule your child’s life. Keep after-school activities limited to just one or two things. Although you may want to provide as much enrichment as you can for your child, don’t forget that free time is valuable too. Free time provides your children an opportunity to explore the world, experiment, and learn to entertain themselves. Adulthood doesn’t come with a weekly planner filled with activities. Adulthood is a blank slate that needs to be filled on your own. Allow your child to develop the skills necessary to decide their own use of time.
Don’t worry too much about their mistakes
If your child comes home with a C- on an exam, your first instinct may be to punish him or her, or you may just fly off the handle without thinking. Try your best to respond kindly and supportively to mistakes. By over-reacting to mistakes, we condition our children to fear failure. This is natural to an extent, but we are observing an intense, and debilitating fear of failure in those kids failing to launch. We want our children to learn that it’s ok to fail, as long as you pick yourself up and try again. Failure should not seem like a life-destroying catastrophe; it should be viewed as a sad, but normal part of life.
Ask yourself: Have you succeeded in every single thing you’ve tried? And have any of your failures taught you something? The C- might just be a one-time thing, but an over-reaction can instill a fear in your children that comes up again and again in their lives, preventing them from taking risks and trying to move forward.
Provide unconditional love
Make sure that your children know that you love them for just being themselves. You may be proud of their achievements, but be careful not to send the message that their success is the only reason you love them.
Providing an unconditionally loving home for your children will set them up with the emotional and psychological strength to survive and thrive in the real world. Unconditional love leads to a sense of security in one’s identity and an ability to forge genuine relationships later in life. On the other hand, conditional love makes children fearful and insecure in their attachments. This translates into a number of different problems later in life.
If you feel that your efforts are not working, and you need a little more help getting through to your young adult child, please contact us at Breathe Life Healing Centers. We have experience dealing with this unique situation and we have the resources to help you and your child move forward.