Failure to Launch!

Hanlie Snyman

The title of this article is also the title of a comedy film with, of course, a happy ending. However, Failure to Launch is also a real-life, serious and modern syndrome which is experienced by many young people when transitioning into their next developmental phase. This phase usually involves being more independent and taking responsibility of your decisions and life, in other words, being an adult. While the movie is funny and cute, the reality of this situation is a painful struggle.

There are many factors contributing to this phenomenon, varying from a lack of intrinsic motivation to undiagnosed learning disabilities, adjustment problems and consequences of high school habits that don’t translate to later adult life. Caretaking behaviour from their parents can also contribute to this. Parents are held hostage by feelings of fear and guilt, worrying what will happen if that child is ‘cut off’ financially and whether or not he or she will be able to take responsibility of their own lives. This is not because they are bad parents, but because they love them. And the emotions these parents are experiencing are conflicting and often leave them feeling frustrated.

So what does it mean to successfully launch into adulthood?

Firstly it would refer to the achievement of certain developmental milestones. This occurs in early life when learning skills are necessary for more independent activities and decision making. And by these we mean sensory-, motor-, social- and learning skills. We begin to direct our actions and thinking mind, which allows us to express ourselves, adapt and move forward.

But where do we get the energy (fuel) to launch?

The process for this launch first occurs between young children and their caretakers and facilitates the skilful attachment to an inner and outer world. The child’s world expands to more diverse and complex environments, after which they then go to school and are hopefully exposed to even more opportunities to find and express their interests.

They then move from primary to high school and the process continues, where the child becomes more aware of his or her ‘self’: “Do the other kids like me? Am I cool? What do I like? Are my grades okay? What do I want to become one day?”

The ‘launch’ starts at the completion of high school, when the young person needs to decide what to do next. Go to college? Take a gap year? Get a job? For many the answer is: “My parents want me to do it”, or “I need to study if I want to find a good job”. These answers are mostly frustrating and unsatisfactory to them, because the young person actually does not feel committed and focused to deal with the demands that their new environment will offer them. There is no lack of inner motivation in order for success to be possible, and they often need guidance to get clarification and focus in this area.

The ‘launch’ is one of the most complex of developmental launches, requiring an internalised faith in one’s abilities and independence. The young adult needs to tap into a sense of both perseverance and resiliency in order to make independent decisions, while at the same time balancing their resources of others. They cannot do this alone. We all are both interdependent and independent.

According to Dr Linda Sapadin (Fellow at the American Psychological Association), here’s what you must do to help your young adult develop the necessary skills for liftoff:

  • Don’t immediately think something is wrong. Give a young person time to establish himself. A brief stint at home after graduation is to be expected. Not many college graduates have a clear direction for what to do next.
  • Teach (or get professional help) your young adult to learn to deal with the multiple challenges of adulthood. These might include how to job search, write a resume, build career skills, self-presentation skills, money management, household maintenance skills and how to afford living on one’s own.
  • Recognize psychological problems that may be inhibiting his/her development. This might include anxiety, procrastination, lack of drive or persistence, need for instant gratification, a strong pattern of avoidance instead of confronting challenges, depression, inability to control anger, or substance abuse. Insist that he/she get help that specifically addresses those issues.
  • Expect him/her to be a contributing member of the household with chores, if not money. Be clear on what the responsibilities are. Make sure he/she functions as part of the family, not apart from the family.
  • Be aware of signs of narcissism and lack of concern for others. Narcissism may become a pattern when one is repeatedly told how special, smart, talented and great one is, without connecting these gifts to the personal effort and hard work needed to actualize them. The upshot? Kids can come to feel entitled to receiving what they want just because they want it. Make sure you don’t feed narcissistic demands. Be clear on what you will do for your young adult and what you won’t do.

Ultimately, for a successful launch, irrespective of any diagnosis or issues that the young person faces, the final common pathway is that he or she must tap into and identify a passion or passions, experience the joy that comes with expressing those passions, and have opportunities to share this joy with others. There must be a conscious effort to cultivate not just the logic of the mind, but also the desires of the heart. This is what ultimately leads to a sense of balance and satisfaction in life—the ultimate goal.

Hanlie Snyman is a psychologist in private practice in Paarl. Contact her on 076 988 0402 (mobile phone) or 021 8633127/8 (office). For more information, please visit her website at

Hanlie Snyman is ‘n sielkundige in privaat praktyk in die Paarl. Kontak haar by 076 988 0402 (selfoon) of 021 8633127/8 (kantoor). Vir meer inligting, besoek haar webwerf

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