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Overcoming the Failure to Launch Epidemic

As families move from a caregiving mindset to a caretaking one, failure to launch is becoming increasingly common.
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As families move from a caregiving mindset to a caretaking one, failure to launch is becoming increasingly common.

The difference between these two approaches is simple: While caregiving involves teaching children how to be independent of others, caretaking involves teaching children to rely on others for their happiness and success.

The latter approach is an essential part of parenting a young child, but as that child begins to reach adulthood, caretaking becomes destructive and debilitating for everyone involved. This problem is now so common that it's permeated right to the core of our society.

When the Great Recession hit in 2007, 32 percent of young people were living with their parents. By 2012, that figure rose to 36 percent.

But failure to launch isn't just about returning to the family home after college or never leaving it in the first place. Not every homeward bound child is seeking an easy life nor is every parent who opens their door letting their child have one. There are a number of signs that can indicate when a parent is enmeshed in a caretaking mindset:

  • Parents pay his rent or don't charge him rent on his room.
  • Parents cook his food or buy his groceries.
  • Parents do his laundry and fold his clothes.
  • Parents pay for gas, insurance, and car repairs.
  • Parents clean his bathroom or clean up after him.
  • Parents pay for his education even when he doesn't show up for class.
  • Parents buy him gifts to soften the blow when he fails.
  • Parents give him instructions, advice, or regular lectures.
  • Parents pull strings to make things easier for him.
  • Parents give him money that he hasn't earned.

Ticking as few as three of these boxes suggests a caretaking relationship rather than a caregiving one. But parents are not solely at fault -- it's a two-way street.

While parents teach their children to be dependent upon others, it's their children who teach them to be OK with that scenario and use a number of tricks to keep the parental caretaking coming.

The Consequences of Failure to Launch

The consequences of this codependent relationship can be devastating. When a young person gets stuck in this developmental state, he will lose all intrinsic motivation to move through life and find a place in the world.

And this is only contributing to our mental health time bomb. The number of young people suffering from depression has doubled since the turn of the millennium, and low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence are both increasingly common.

Without the experience of fending for themselves, many Millennials are struggling to become emotionally and mentally healthy adults. To escape this trap, young adults need to build an identity that doesn't rely on parental support.

How to Launch

Overcoming that obstacle isn't easy, but breaking the process down into these four actionable steps makes it a lot less daunting:

1. Treat the cause, not the symptoms. As every doctor knows, treating the symptoms of a disease might relieve some of the pain, but it won't get rid of the problem. If the root cause of a young adult's failure to launch isn't dealt with, there's no chance that he will overcome it.

Parents have their part to play in this process, but they should resist the temptation to shepherd their child toward independence. Doing so only helps keep that young adult in his comfort zone. It's only by facing the challenge head-on that a young adult can earn his independence.

2. Have the confidence to make mistakes.
Most of the students we work with at Forte Strong aren't making poor decisions -- they're failing to make decisions in the first place because they're afraid of the consequences of choosing the wrong option.

But failure is an important part of the learning process, and not making any mistakes simply because you're afraid to make one is the worst mistake possible. Thomas Edison made numerous unsuccessful attempts to invent the light bulb, but when asked how it felt to fail so many times, he said that he hadn't -- there were just 1,000 steps in the process.

3. Build a support system. No man is an island, and independence can't be achieved in a day or a week. It's a process, and some days can be harder than others, but it's important not to get disheartened by these setbacks.

A proper support network will offer guidance and encouragement at these times and serve as a barometer for tracking a young adult's progress toward independence. Remember: Independence doesn't have to be learned independently.

4. Move forward step by step. Simultaneously trying to tackle every aspect of the problem can result in stress and anxiety. Instead, young adults should break the process down into steps so it's easier to track progress and reflect on past success.

Momentum builds with each successful step. With that momentum comes an improved focus on the challenges ahead and increased confidence that the ultimate objective is achievable. The next step is always the most important one.

Failure-to-launch syndrome can't be ignored, and there's no use in hoping that it will go away on its own. Young adults and their parents need to take active and progressive steps toward a solution and shift from a caretaking relationship to a caregiving one.

Brook Price is president and co-founder of Forte Strong, a failure-to-launch program that gives young men the skills and character traits they need to tackle the challenges of life. Brook has more than 16 years of experience helping young men understand their innate strengths and how to use their strengths effectively to achieve results they never thought possible.