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Failure to Launch; Helping My Underachieving Adult Child

Updated on June 26, 2018
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M. D. Jackson is a college psychology professor, family counselor, and a mother of nine adult children.

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Failure to Launch

You have been beating your head against the wall. That adult child of yours is playing video games, probably smoking marijuana, and certainly not going to college. All motivation is gone. For whatever reason your adult child has sat down on the soccer field of life and refuses to go after the ball. Why? What led to this lack of achievement? What happened? Is it your fault your child has a failure to launch? Let us look at statistics concerning young adults.

Current social ideas have led to an epidemic of adult children who do not seem inclined to leave home. In 2016, CBS reported that 40% of young adults were still living with a relative (Picchi, A. Dec. 2016). The Bureau of Labor and Statistics reports the largest unemployed age group over 18 is currently those 20 to 24 years of age (Bureau of Labor and Statistics, 2018). What we are seeing is a lack of interest in entry level jobs and a lack of interest in moving out of family provided housing. While adult children in big cities may have issues finding affordable housing, people living in cities only account for 20% of the U.S. population (U.S. Census , 2010). We could call this failure to launch a social epidemic.

Why doesn't he get a job?
Why doesn't he get a job? | Source

Being an Adult

Some of the determining factors are clearly impulse issues that most of us experienced in our youth. As adults we handing our lives differently. Your adult child might think they are an adult. Yet, that young adult is only meeting the criteria in age. Being an adult is full of responsibilities and commitments. Without the responsibility and accountability a person is just an over grown child

A true adult is defined by the following:

  1. Is older than 18
  2. Pays for their own living expenses
  3. Takes responsibility for their actions
  4. Treats others with respect
  5. Pays their debts
  6. Supports their family
  7. Follows laws
  8. Can have money without spending it
  9. Accept being wronged without retaliation


Dealing Honestly with Your Adult Child

An adult child living in your house, doing nothing day in and day out does not have a reason to progress. Nineteen is not retirement age. I’m sure many of you have had the “get a job” talk with this adult child and they have ignored you. What is happening? Why don’t they listen? They are not listening because nothing has changed for them. Your words are not a motivator.

What’s even tougher is that if you have not achieved a level of success in your life, your kids are not going to listen to you about doing something with their lives. At least they are not going to listen unless you are honest. I’ve known parents who worked dead end jobs and missed an opportunity to use that reality to promote a better life for their kids. If you have done 48-60 hour weeks in retail just to keep food on the table, be honest with your kids about what that is like. Be truthful about what you wish you had done differently. Also I would tell you, it’s never too late for you to branch into something new and start over.

No kid is going to look at your daily grind and say “that looks like fun”. In fact I would say we have an entire generation that has done that very thing. If you look miserable, it’s one more reason for your kid to pitch a tent in their friend’s yard and go on welfare. Survival is not fun. Although I look back fondly on the “scraping change for milk’ years, they are not where I want to live. To move a mountain you have to pick up a shovel.

Conversely, those of you born into money, who graduated college and have never done without, are making it look too easy to live without goals. Maybe your adult child knows there is a bottomless bank account on which to enjoy life. While that may be true, we rarely appreciate luxuries that are handed to us. If you want something better for your adult children, it is time to create positive resistance.

Positive and Negative Resistance

Change in life is inevitable. As you become and adult there are obstacles to achieving things like independence. When the obstacles of achieving independence are removed the person has no point in progressing. Positive resistance moves us in the right direction without hurting us emotionally. Positive resistance is the force that pushes us to try harder and achieve. An example of positive resistance is someone who has to work a job to live while going to college. This person may have a tough time, but that experience is literally pushing them to try harder in school to have a better life when they graduate.

People are also motivated by negative resistance. Negative resistance is when something horrible happens that moves a person to make changes in his or her life. Examples of negative resistance can be a death, a job loss, or even an illness. We see negative resistance as a motivator in everyday life. People such as Tony Robbins improved their lives from negative resistance. For people who are not self-motivated, negative resistance is often their greatest motivation.

Creating Positive Resistance

Many parents think yelling or berating their adult child is going to push that child into adulthood. This tactic does not work. Yelling or harassing your adult child just turns you into the enemy. Eventually that adult child will stop listening to you. You can yell until you are blue in the face, it’s not going to change that adult child’s perspective. To change the situation, you have to change tactics.

First, stop giving that adult child money. Anyone living at home over the age of 18 should have a job. There are millions of entry level jobs going unfilled. Most people either flipped burgers or worked retail in their youth. These are starter jobs that teach us life skills about cooperation, communication, and finances. Remember the first time you bought music with your own money. You cashed that crappy pay check and went to the music store and got some album your parents wouldn’t approve of. That was the best feeling. Why would you deny your adult child that experience?

Second, figure out a plan for your child to pay rent. Rent typically is one fourth your income. If your kid makes $800 a month, $200 is rent. Is it weird to charge your adult children to stay in your home? No, it’s weird that they don’t want to leave. Rent is a real world situation. Use this as a teaching moment, teach your kid about bill paying. I sat my youngest down with the excel spreadsheet I created to pay bills, we looked up entry level jobs, apartments, and figured out what his life would be like if he moved out. I recommend every parent teach their adult kids this lesson.

Third, give your child a time line to move out. Studio apartments are still out there. One of our kid’s friends didn’t have a car and walked through the snow to his job at Walmart while living in his studio apartment. Hardships build character and often motivate us to try harder. My usual time line for moving an adult child along is six months. Anyone without living expenses can save money to move out. Your adult children may not be aware of the options for renting a place. Maybe there are apartments in your area with amenities your child would find appealing. Things like pools or work out rooms may be the catalyst for your child to leave your house. Go look around with them. Freedom is amazing, but it has to look like an attainable goal.

Fourth, reward their efforts. If your kid moved out and makes it six months on their own, tell them how proud you are of them. Maybe take them out to celebrate with lunch. Be proud of your adult child making their own decisions, figuring out life on their own. Address your adult child’s fears about living on their own. I’m finding more and more that these kids are afraid to leave their parents. Find out what the fear is and discuss it. Do not dismiss their feelings. Not everyone is excited about leaving home.

Adult Children Who Refuse to Progress

If you have given your adult child a time line and had the rent talk with them and they are still not looking for a job there is something you can do to move them along. Pick up some boxes and start packing their room up. This will be upsetting for your adult child, however, it will send a clear message that you mean business. If that child still refuses to get a job, take them to the homeless shelter to see the other options available. Be strong, this is not play time.

Parents Who Won't Let Go

Mother’s especially, seem to have an issue with allowing their adult children to leave home. We all cried when our kids started kindergarten. Letting your kids go out in the world can be scary. It is necessary for all adults to be self-sufficient. We all eventually live on our own and have to support ourselves. Also your children need to develop their own autonomy. Remember when you left home and no longer had to eat the food your parents served, dress the way they wanted, or do the things they liked to do? Your adult child needs to find out what they like, how they want to live. They cannot progress with you hanging over them. Let your children live their lives.

We all love our children. We want our children to be happy health adults. Hopefully you can help your adult child onto the path of self-sufficiency and happiness.

© 2018 MD Jackson MSIOP

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    • profile image

      Gwennym 

      6 months ago

      I've just had a run-in with my 24 year old daughter who lives at home with her dad. She is one of those "failure to launch" adult kids. She works part time (VERY part time) as a server and bartender, has never gotten her driver's license, smokes pot and drinks heavily, and is belligerent/mean/hateful/ungrateful .... the list can go on. I don't know what her rent situation is at her dad's, but I do know that her phone is paid by him, as are groceries, utilities, cable, etc. Her room is a monumental pigsty -- you can't see the hardwood floors under all the crap strewn all over. Dishes and glasses with food/drink still adhering. Her dad had dry heaves just trying to make a headway.

      I have kept both of my 20-something children on my health insurance -- my eldest used to go to psychiatrist visits and took SSRIs, so I wanted to make sure she was covered for that. No more - I removed her, starting 9/1, due to the above-mentioned "run in". I have forwarded your previous article about adult children "When to Help and When to Let Them Learn" to my ex husband -- I learned so much, especially from the Q & A. I hope he takes your words of wisdom to heart. I sure did.

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