Failure to Launch

The Struggle to Leave Home in the 21st Century

Failure to Launch

This article first appeared in the July/August 2006 issue.

By longstanding American tradition, when kids reach a certain age, say 18, 20, 22, they’re expected to fly the home coop and begin living their own independent adult lives—making their own careers, renting their own Ikea-furnished apartments, cooking or foraging for their own food, even doing their own laundry. Finally, tired parents think, perhaps they can begin to enjoy some of the freedom of empty nesters, use the extra time and money they now have to indulge themselves a little by taking a few long-postponed trips, moving into a smaller but spiffier condo, signing up for art history courses at the local college.

But what if the kids don’t leave? What if, by age 21 or 23 or, horrors, 25, they’re still living at home? Without jobs or prospects? Or what if the child’s “starter marriage” didn’t pan our, nor did his career plans, and he returns to the old homestead, maybe with a very young child in tow, needing to be fed, housed, and generally supported again? Thirty or even twenty years ago, this would have raised eyebrows among the neighbors—”What’s wrong with that kid!”—and family therapists would have been called in to figure out why the adult child was still so “enmeshed” with the family of origin that he or she couldn’t even physically move away. Today, however, it’s become quite ordinary, even normal, for many adult children, even with a B.A. or postgraduate degree in hand, to remain holed up in the parental abode long past their due date for taking off.

What’s happened since the early ’70s and ’80s to reverse the once-normal trend among young adults to grow up and move out? It’s the economy, stupid. Vast downsizing, stagnating wages, the disappearance of many well-paying, mid-level entry jobs in favor of low-skilled, low-wage, low-benefit employment face young people, who also must contend with huge student-loan debts, soaring housing costs, and dispiriting, months-long job searches that lead nowhere. All this has created a new generation of adult-child stay-at-homes. In short, today’s 20-somethings (and even 30-somethings) are much likelier than previous generations to require continued housing and financial support from their parents, because they simply haven’t been able to establish careers or even find good jobs. Not only has this reality saddled parents with unexpected expenses and cares (which may add to obligations to help their own frail and elderly parents), but it can also produce some heavy psychological costs for parents and kids alike. It’s an inherently anomalous situation to have legal-age adults back home in the same dependent relationship to their parents as they had during their early teens. Parents are confused—are they supposed to be parents or roommates? Adult children tend to feel resentful at the control their parents still almost automatically extend over them, while finding it ever more difficult to break out on their own.

Such was the case of Julia and Nolan, who were 62 and 63 respectively. Their youngest son, Ron, a 23-year-old college graduate with a degree in political science, was still living at home because he’d been unable to find a satisfactory job. Julia and Nolan had willingly accepted Ron back into their home, expecting that it would be a temporary arrangement while he son worked out what he wanted to do with his life.

Like many families in these situations, Julia, Nolan, and Ron largely went back to relating to one another as they had when their son was home on breaks from college. The parents made virtually no demands on him—he wasn’t expected to contribute to the family coffers nor did he have any real responsibilities for helping around the house—and he could come and go as he pleased.

Julia and Nolan came to see me after Ron had been home 14 months, because the arrangement was beginning to cause marital friction. The couple couldn’t agree about how to handle the situation. Nolan clearly was irritated by his son, complaining that Ron was taking advantage of “the gravy train.” In response, Julia stood up for her son saying, “He isn’t doing all that he should, but I know two things: one, he’s an adult, and we can’t just demand something of him like we used to, and two, he’s discouraged about his prospects and doesn’t need Nolan reminding him that he’s unsuccessful.”

I see more and more of these cases in my clinical practice. Known as the “twixer” movement, these young people seem to be caught in a state of suspended animation. Sometimes they’re college graduates like Ron, with no clear plans or prospects. Other times, they’re newly divorced adult children with kids of their own, who’ve moved back home because they can’t make it without financial support. They even can be late adolescents who simply seem stuck and can’t dislodge themselves from home. Usually their baffled parents have no ideas or clear guidelines about how to help their children, or even how to think about this odd phenomenon that’s so different from their own experience as young adults.

Being Lazy Isn’t the Problem

“I know Ron’s discouraged,” complained Nolan, “but I think the real problem is that he’s just plain lazy!” I hear this often from mystified parents, who remember sailing from college to their first job, building a career, and never looking back. So, in dealing with these twixer situations, I feel I must first help the whole family understand just how much the economic world has changed since the parents were young four decades ago.
“I know that when you were Ron’s age, you probably were out finding a job and willing to work your way up the ladder,” I said to Nolan. “Damn straight!” he answered, and then proceeded to tell me a prolonged story about his first job experience, how hard he’d worked, and how willing he was “to live on whatever I earned.” These stories are common, and true, for the older generation

“I really do believe what you tell me, Nolan” I assured him, but then to widen the perspective on Ron’s situation, I offered a few dramatic facts about how different his world was from the one his son is entering now. “In 1966, a person earning minimum wage could actually afford rent, transportation, and food. Do you really think a minimum wage could provide the same now?” I asked. Adults of Nolan’s generation have no trouble remembering how hard they struggled to make it, but little sense of how much society has changed over the past few decades. When inflation is taken into account, I tell them, minimum wage—and higher wages, as well—are only worth about 75 percent of what the same amount of money was worth 30 years ago. The gulf between rich and poor continues to grow, so that even “middle class” young people are caught in a housing crunch: either they have big money to pay the outsized rents in middle-income areas or they find themselves living in relatively poor, dilapidated housing in possibly high-crime, unsafe areas. Further, I point out, 30 years ago, a college degree guaranteed a good white-collar job with a future. Today, given the proliferation of college degrees and climate of downsizing, a college grad finds him or herself competing with high school students for the same job. “In addition,” I said to Nolan, “you’ve seen the way the corporate structure works—with no long-term loyalty to workers and making hiring (and firing) decisions based on immediate financial returns. Don’t you think the world is a lot different than it used to be?” Nolan grudgingly acknowledged that the world had certainly changed since he was a young man.

“I know that some things have to be different for your household to work,” I continued, “but your son Ron is most likely not lazy. He’s caught in a period of profound social flux, just like you are. It’s a world in which the transition into adulthood isn’t as easy and smooth as maybe it once was, and where your parenting work isn’t quite over.”

As a crucial first step in helping to resolve situations such as this, parents must understand that the job of raising their offspring doesn’t necessarily stop at age 18, 22 or 25, but only when the child has an opportunity to begin negotiating the tasks of young adulthood. Forty years ago, a college graduate usually had a job and an apartment lined up before commencement, so the structure was in place for him/her to become independent and mature into a full adult. Today many young adults are kept in a position of artificial immaturity by economic realities—they still need their parents, but in a way different from how they did at 8 or 10 or 15.

As I see it, parents are used to emotionally taking care of their young and teenage children, but parenting adult children requires emotional encouragement, not caretaking, and this can be a hard transition for parents and kids to make. Fixing problems for kids, helping curb the harsh consequences of their thoughtless or mischievous behavior, making sure they’re exposed to the best opportunities possible: these are appropriate ways for parents to take care of young children and adolescents, but not an adult child. Years ago, kids grew into adulthood, moved out, and learned on their own how to care for themselves, and physically leaving home was a necessary and expected part of the process. But adult children who can’t or won’t leave home often haven’t had the chance to learn how to care for themselves emotionally. Their parents have always done that job for them and, in many cases, may unconsciously resist relinquishing this caretaking role.

The goal of therapy in these situations is to help the parents give up the caretaking job and take up a more collaborative role with their adult children. Instead of fixing problems or providing opportunities for their kids, they can share their experience and knowledge with their children, express confidence in their children’s abilities and future, and, most important, allow the adult children to deal with the consequences of their own choices. In other words, they must learn to become older, more knowledgeable friends and mentors, rather than parents, to their children, and resist the temptation to bail them out of self-made difficulties. “In order to be constructive, we must think in terms of learning a new phase of parenting that hasn’t been necessary in the past,” I said. This suggested to Nolan and Julia that the issue wasn’t simply whether Ron was “lazy” or whether they should be more “supportive,” but rather how the whole family could work together effectively to deal with a situation in which Ron wasn’t entirely in, nor entirely out of, the family nest—an extremely awkward position for all three family members.

Adult Collaboration

I asked that Ron come with Julia and Nolan to the second session. Predictably, he was defensive, saying, “I don’t know what else they want me to do. I’ve continued to apply for jobs, but there aren’t many jobs related to my major, and I don’t want to go back to school and waste more time and money.” I calmed him down by telling him what I’d told his parents—that the problem wasn’t his laziness but the radical changes in the economy and culture of employment over the years. Then I said, “The issue really isn’t whether or not you’ve tried. The issue is how you can handle this situation as a family in which everyone at the table is an adult.”

I began reframing their relationship as an adult collaboration among equals by asking what Ron wanted from his parents. Usually these “twixers” don’t give specifics to such a question, but vaguely say they want “emotional support,” which Ron predictably did. I countered by saying that while parents can offer emotional encouragement, both parents and children are in a better position if they join together as fellow problem-solvers than if they view the parental role as taking care of the child.

I then turned to the parents and asked, “What is it you want from Ron?” They were as vague as their son had been, saying they simply wanted him to be “happy and independent.” The problem with such a vacuous goal, of course, is that it suggests nothing specific to actually do and can’t be measured against any actual results. I countered by saying, “It’s important that you make Ron aware of your specific personal and couple goals. As long as you’re living together in the house as three adults, you must learn to cooperate and collaborate in order to make things move in a positive direction.”

This seems very straightforward and yet it requires a substantial, even radical, shift in the consciousness of parents. No less than the adult child, who must work to achieve his or her goals of independence and self-reliance, the parents need to work on their own goals, which often include learning to let go of the only role they’ve ever had in relationship to their child.

I helped the family discuss their individual and mutual desires and the direction each one wanted to pursue. Ron said he wanted to go to law school, but was afraid he wouldn’t be successful at it and, anyway, didn’t see how he could manage it without being an even greater financial burden on his parents. Nolan and Julia wanted to retire when she turned 64, but both were afraid it wasn’t feasible if they couldn’t get Ron settled by then.
I helped the family collaborate on a plan that would get Ron started working on his goal of going to law school within five months without threatening Julia and Nolan’s planned retirement. I do discussions of this type in a cognitive mode—advice and suggestions—but I stress again and again the necessity of keeping in mind the twin goals of independence for the child and supportive collaboration without emotional overinvolvement for the parents. The idea is to shift the tone and content of the interaction away from “upset, disappointed parents/ lazy, resentful child” to an interaction between adults about the best way to resolve problems they all face in common.

Engaging in this conversation elicited some positive energy and fueled some constructive ideas—for instance, Ron would get a part-time job, help with some of the bills, begin saving for law school, and take over some household responsibilities, while his parents would take the time to do things on their own as a couple, rather than as parents. I emphasized throughout these sessions that the family should live like responsible adult roommates who worked together in a grown-up way on resolving problems. Of course, there’s always a strong emotional connection in every family, but the day-to-day activities can be done in a spirit of mutual cooperation, more like working colleagues than parents and child. Within three weeks, Ron had a job at a coffee house and was enrolled in pre-law coursework for the next semester. Working together to resolve problems like equal adults helped all three feel better, particularly Ron, who began to regain a sense of competence and independence.

Three Rescues

Of course, these situations seldom resolve themselves smoothly and easily. The family came into the fourth session with heads down, all three obviously angry and upset. Julia said, “Ron met up with some of his buddies last week at a bar, drank too much, and ended up getting a DWI.” Nolan lashed out, “We can’t depend on him for anything!” Ron shouted, “It isn’t your problem. I’ll take care of it!”

Although this twixer generation does have difficulty making the transition to adulthood, the dynamics between parents and adult children aren’t all that different than they were a generation ago, except for the employment and independence issues. For example, I noticed early in therapy that Julia was going through her own difficult transition from active motherhood to empty nester—if she could ever get her last child launched. She still couldn’t stop trying to “solve” Ron’s emotional upsets—in this case, by trying to smooth things over between father and son.

As Julia tried to calm both Nolan and Ron, I spoke to the couple. “It’s a difficult choice for both of you,” I said. “You cooperate with Ron as an adult, and then he makes a bad choice. Do you now begin treating him like an adolescent again? If you treat him like an adult and he makes these bad choices, do you wonder whether you might be failing to meet your obligation as parents? You want him to be a successful adult living at home, but you also wonder when you should, or whether you should, step in and save him’ from his own decisions.”

This gave Julia an opportunity to express her quandary about wanting to be a good mother and still honor the collaborative-adult model we’d been working on. After much discussion, I suggested an approach that I’ve used successfully with many families—the “safe harbor” model, wherein the parents will always be willing to collaborate with the adult child as an adult, but only as long as the child comes home and lives responsibly within the harbor of home. If the adult child chooses to go outside the safe harbor of home and do irresponsible things, the parents commit themselves to “rescuing” the adult child no more than three times. “Any more than three rescues,” I said, “really indicates that, as parents, you’re the problem in creating the dependency of your own child.”

Julia asked tentatively, “Three times a year or three times while they’re at home?”

“Three times during a lifetime.” I responded firmly. “That’s why it’s necessary to consider very carefully the decision to commit yourselves to such a plan and, if you do commit, to only rescue’ him when you feel it’s absolutely essential.” If parents do any more than three “saves,” most likely they’re implicitly contributing to the child’s irresponsibility and dependency. Three times isn’t a magical number: it simply focuses parents’ attention on the need to allow the adult child to experience the consequences of his or her own life choices, while still being flexible enough to provide second chances. Basically, the three-strikes-you’re-out rule provides a permanent safeguard preventing parents from caving in to parental temptation and rushing to save their child, which would completely undermine the point of the entire exercise.

Interestingly enough, Ron was the most supportive of this idea. “You and Dad have your own plans. I’ll deal with this DWI,” he said.
The family made the decision to make the safe-harbor commitment, and Ron handled all of the legal details of his charge and eventual probation. After 18 months in law school, he shifted his sights to a career in business, and was successful at getting a job in human resources for the city government. Nolan and Julia worked together in collaborating with Ron during the 18 months, with only minor frustrations.

Nolan summed up the family teamwork best when he said in the last session, “Ron is living at home, but he’s an adult with a plan, and we’re just part of that adjustment process.” I think that this is what parenting adult children in their twixer years is all about. Treating their son less like a lazy, naughty child and more like a responsible adult became a self-fulfilling act—Ron really did begin to become a responsible adult. Loosening the reins of parental obligation, paradoxically, both obliged and freed Ron to become more accountable to himself.

Case Commentary

By Douglas Flemons

In 1994, Bill Clinton imposed a baseball metaphor on the criminal justice system, championing a crime bill that now guarantees a sentence of life imprisonment without parole to repeat offenders who manage to score a third felony conviction: “Three strikes and you’re out!” I remember wondering back then about the reverberating effect on the lives of criminals and victims (and the families of both) if baseball players got, say, as many as seven chances to get on base. As Terry Hargrave aptly notes in his case study, there’s nothing magical about the number three. The issue has to do with defining a threshold that, if crossed, triggers those in charge to put their foot down.

If a baseball metaphor can galvanize the president and congress and determine the behavior of judges, then there’s a good chance it’ll do the same for parents. It certainly seemed to help Nolan and Julia grab hold of the idea of setting definitive boundaries for their son, and it seemed to help Ron take responsibility for his future.

According to Yogi Berra, “Baseball is 90 percent mental—the other half is physical.” Hargrave’s work with this family suggests something similar about therapy: 90 percent has to do with how you orient to a problem, and the other half has to do with what you do to solve it. Hargrave created change in both orientation and action, and not just through his use of metaphor. He used sociological data to normalize Ron’s predicament, reframing him as a victim of societal flux, rather than as a lazy mooch, and he encouraged Nolan and Julia to collaborate with a fellow adult, rather than parent a seeming adolescent.

Like Hargrave, I rely on metaphors and reframes. I appreciate the importance of thresholds and boundaries. I look for opportunities for my clients to take action. But, as Yogi Berra’s son Dale would say, “Our similarities are different.” Although I’m comfortable claiming expertise in knowing how to help people change, this comfort doesn’t extend to didactically imparting facts (even if I know them), giving advice, setting guidelines for how clients should respond to others, or defining what behaviors indicate who in a system is “the problem.” I don’t want to put my clients in the position of having to agree or disagree with me; I don’t want them giving me the credit for the changes they make; and unless they’re in imminent danger of harming someone, I don’t want them looking to me for a definition of who’s mad or bad.

One way I avoid these pitfalls is to ask questions that simultaneously honor the expertise of the clients and introduce new possibilities. “Julia,” I might venture, “it’s possible, despite what you believe, that Nolan is dead right about your son. If you were to discover that Ron is just plain lazy, what would you do to help him become a mooch-free guy?”

“Nolan, if you were to realize that Julia, true to form, has been right all along about Ron—that he’s a temporary victim of crummy circumstances—what would you do differently to support him through this rough patch?”

“Ron, how long do you think it’ll take your mom and dad to learn that you’re actually capable of learning from this DUI and other screw-ups?” “What can they do to best help you learn?” “How can you speed up their learning curve, so they can help you speed up yours?” “If your learning curve is too slow, or if they’re too slow to recognize that you’re indeed changing, then at what point should you all quit this experiment in mutual home-schooling?” And so on.

Since Hargrave will likely be responding to my commentary, let me close by asking him a question. “Terry, if, like a good baseball coach, you were to use your considerable expertise to discover and highlight the expertise of those you work with, how many more base hits do you think they’d score, and how much more fun would you have working with them?” Batter up!

Author’s Response

Baseball and Yogi Berra are certainly playful ways to talk about therapy! It appears that Douglas Flemons and I don’t disagree much on the issues concerning this family, or even the goals we’d work toward. Flemons suggests that he prefers a therapy that’s less didactic, that produces more client insight, and doesn’t depend so much on the therapist to assert direction. Actually, I have no problems with the questions that he’d ask in therapy, and see them as his style in helping people change. I also think they’d have had a good possibility of working with this family.

The issue that I do have, however, as I have with many solution-focused styles of therapy, is the almost patronizing way it’s suggested that the brief-therapy approach is so much better than other therapies. How many more “hits” would the family have if they’d come to these conclusions based on their own expertise? The implication is that I’ve somehow robbed the family of their own strengths, and that they won’t have to use any of their own resources or hard work to achieve change. This simply isn’t true.

I believe in thoughtful questioning, and even believe many of the strength-based ideas. But I also know that a lot of people come to therapy not because they’re so unclear about what needs to be done, but rather because they can’t do what they know must be done. I believe therapy is essential in helping people get to this issue as well.

How many hits and how much more fun? The truth is I have no idea. But the deeper truth is that Flemons and I have different styles of therapy. There are situations in which Berra’s style is called for, and others in which Joe Dimaggio’s style is more effective. Sometimes one style will work better than the other, but neither of us will know exactly why.

Therapy isn’t that exacting. The bottom line, though, is that therapy isn’t about “hits” or even “fun.” It’s about the pragmatic process of producing change or “wins” in the family.

Terry Hargrave

Terry Hargrave, PhD, a professor of marriage and family therapy at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including Restoration Therapy: Understanding and Guiding Healing in Marriage and Family Therapy.

Douglas Flemons

Douglas Flemons, PhD, LMFT, lives and maintains a telehealth practice in Asheville, North Carolina. Professor Emeritus of Family Therapy at Nova Southeastern University, he’s coauthor of Relational Suicide Assessment, coeditor of Quickies: The Handbook of Brief Sex Therapy, and author, most recently, of The Heart and Mind of Hypnotherapy.