Failure to Launch: 7 Tips for Families of Adult Children With Complex Mental Health Disorders

An adult child who does not move out of their childhood home, fails to contribute financially, withdraws socially and doesn’t even try to find work or go to school may be going through failure to launch syndrome. In some cases, it may be triggered by mental illness or trauma. It’s important for parents to consider the possibility, to get their adult child evaluated by a mental health professional, and take steps to help them get treatment and build confidence and skills necessary to finally become independent.

Failure to launch is not an official mental health diagnosis, but it is a reality experienced by many families and a problem that is growing in America. It occurs when a child does not successfully or fully make the transition from teenager living at home to independent adult. It can be a source of humor for some people, but this problem may have very serious underlying issues, such as complex mental illnesses. If you have a child struggling to be independent and failing to cope with mental health issues, there are things you can do to help.

Some people find it funny or pathetic—you can even watch a romantic comedy on the topic—but failure to launch can be very serious. The consequences are that parents are unhappy with a child lingering at home, while the adult child is struggling to become a successful adult, both of which are grave problems. And, there can also be serious causes of failure to launch, including complex mental health disorders.

Any kind of mental illness, like anxiety, can make independence challenging, but the more complex illnesses are more likely to stand in the way of full, normal functioning. Complex relational trauma, for instance, which occurs when a child experiences long-term abuse or neglect from a parent, sibling, or other person close to them, can cause lasting mental health issues that stand in the way of embracing independence.

If you have an adult child in the home who you believe should have left the nest or at least be more independent, you may feel at a loss as to what to do about it. There are concrete steps you can take to help your child move past this stage and become a successful, happy, and fulfilled adult.

1. Get a Mental Health Evaluation

Mental illness doesn’t always cause failure to launch. Some young adults are simply hesitant to leave home or take full responsibility for their lives. However, if mental health is an issue, this problem will never resolve until it is identified and treated.

The first step you should take in helping an adult child with failure to launch syndrome is to get an evaluation by one or more mental health professionals. If you aren’t sure where to turn, start with your trusted family doctor. They can start the process and direct you to a psychologist or psychiatrist who will be able to help further.

2. Consider Treatment Options, Including Residential Care

If your child is diagnosed with complex mental health issues or any mental illness, find out what the treatment options are. These issues are likely triggering your child’s difficulties with independence. Treatment and learning to manage mental illnesses will help your child progress into independent adulthood.

Take seriously the option to provide your child with residential treatment. Especially if their mental health issues are severe or complex, this kind of dedicated, months-long treatment may be the most effective. It can be helpful to be away from home but also to get care from a variety of specialists. In residential care, your child can also learn and practice life skills that will support independence after treatment.

3. Ditch Video Games

This may seem unrelated, but research indicates there is a connection between playing video games and failure to launch. A study compared young adults who play an online world-building game for several hours a week with those who do not. The results showed the video game players made riskier decisions when practicing life skills, had more mental health issues, and were less able to consider their futures. They preferred to keep playing games as their real lives and mental health issues got worse. Eliminating video games from the home may help your child focus more on healthy habits and their future.

4. Manage Expectations

Some adult children get stuck where they are because the world around them gives them unrealistic expectations of what their lives should be: instant success, wealth, beauty and athletic performance, all without working hard.

When they fail to achieve that kind of success easily, they may feel defeated and like failures. Help your child manage expectations about what being a successful adult life looks like: working hard to achieve what you want, not receiving instant, easy rewards.


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5. Set Boundaries, One at a Time

Parents with children in this situation have likely contributed to failure to launch. Despite your best intentions, you may have failed to set boundaries or expectations that would make your child feel uncomfortable. Now is the time to start making changes, but doing it all at once will only cause resentment and continued failure. You won’t see results with tough love that is too tough.

Instead, start with one or two new boundaries, like a limit on gaming or a certain amount of time spent on looking for a job. Increase these expectations over time. This will make your child uncomfortable, but with small changes they will learn to cope, and each new success that required hard work will build on the next.

6. Focus on Shame and Fear, Not Failure or Laziness

It’s easy to view a young adult struggling to transition to independence as simply a failure or as lazy. While there may be elements of these issues, it’s important to understand the real problems and to be sensitive to them. Your child likely feels ashamed seeing their friends and peers graduate from college, get jobs, and start families.

That shame, as well as fear of what lies outside the home as an independent adult, is a powerful barrier that is difficult to overcome. With good treatment, your child can learn to overcome these, but it’s important for parents to be aware that laziness is a small part of the problem. Your child is ashamed and scared, and simply berating them for being lazy and a failure will only make the issue worse and alienate them from you.

7. Avoid Substance Abuse

Drugs and alcohol are poor coping tools, yet they are tools many people rely on in the face of distress, fear, shame, and other mental health issues. A child in a failure to launch situation may smoke marijuana, drink, or use other substances to cope with these bad feelings and a sense of failure.

Keep an eye on your child’s substance use. An occasional drink may not be a problem, but it is all too easy to slip into a substance use disorder that will only make the situation worse. If you see signs that your child has problematic substance use behaviors, get them professional help right away before it gets worse. This is an issue that can be addressed in residential treatment along with any underlying mental health disorders.

Failure to launch is a real problem for many families, and it impacts everyone. An adult child in this situation may be struggling more than you know. The most important thing you can do is get your child good mental health care. An underlying complex mental illness will not heal itself. It will not go away, and trying to launch will be impossible until it is addressed. Take these steps and insist your child get an evaluation.

If you’re concerned about a loved one and believe they may need residential care, we can help. BrightQuest offers long-term treatment for people struggling with schizoaffective disorders, schizophrenia, and severe bipolar as well as co-occurring substance use disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.