It seems every week I get a phone call from a parent who is worried about their adult son or daughter. They are fraught with concern and confusion about their adult child who is struggling to get it together, and launch out into the world. 

Though many of these adult children have graduated from college, some by hook or by crook, learning did not necessarily come easy to them. Now, out in the real world, they struggle to find the job they want, and tend to always have a reason for why the available positions in the job market aren’t good enough. These failure to launch adult children are angry, argumentative, and tend to rely on (and abuse) mind-altering substances like alcohol and marijuana. They use substances as a way to cope, to numb out disappointment over what they are unable to achieve.

Many of these adult children live at home, while others have found themselves launched into their own apartments with the caveat that mom and dad foot the bill. In fact, many move out only when their parents reach the boiling point of exasperation and force them to move on (and launch). 

For parents, it’s important to take a look at what your attitudes are towards your adult child. According to social workers Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Are you in a place where your boundaries are being crossed and you need to establish limits?
  2. Do you see your adult child as wanting to become independent or as simply being more comfortable with allowing you to take care of their responsibilities for them?
  3. Is the situation becoming volatile and intolerable? (Is your stress level over the top? Are you fighting with your spouse over what the next best action is?)

From my experience in helping adult children launch and thrive, I have learned it’s important to ask yourself this: are you as a parent inadvertently doing too much for him or her and leaving him or her in a state of permanent adolescence, while you continue to make excuses for why (s)he has not launched?

The truth is the rules of the road have changed. While your adult child will always be your child, he or she is not a kid anymore. So often we as parents can respond to our adult children as if he or she were that same young person who needed to be taken care of. However, when you do for children what they can do for themselves, you are over-functioning, and when you over-function, your adult child under-functions. When you clean up their messes, pay their bills, look the other way when the house reeks of marijuana, etc, you enable your adult child to under-function and delay their launch. 

Such was the case with Matt and Samantha, who called me to help intervene with their three adult children living at home. Matt and Samantha housed their 22-year-old unemployed college graduate daughter who experienced anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, along with their 27-year-old (employed teacher) son and his girlfriend. Matt and Samantha were exhausted. They spent their days picking up after their adult children, making dinner, and feeling as if they were being held hostage in their own home. The only time they had respite was when they took their dog for a walk, and, in fact, that’s when they called me (because they never had a moment of privacy in their home).

In time, Matt and Samantha were able to recognize that these young people were guests in their home and not small children who needed a heightened level of care. So how did they want a guest to act in their home? They decided they did not want them to make a mess, do drugs, or outstay their welcome. Matt and Samantha declared marijuana was no longer allowed in the house, invited their older son and his girlfriend to move out (and to move all of their furniture and belongings out of their garage when they got an apartment), and invited their daughter Debbie to get an assessment at a local treatment center. Debbie sought an assessment and engaged in outpatient treatment for anxiety, depression and substance abuse. Along the way, she rediscovered her love of animals and got a part time job at a local veterinary clinic while she was healing. Matt and Samantha engaged in my couples/parenting coaching program, and even managed to take a vacation by themselves after 6 months of coaching.

Matt and Samantha came to realize that treating their adult children as if they were still kids meant that they were over-functioning as parents, and, in turn, letting their adult children under-function rather than thrive.

I know what it’s like to want to keep your children close to you, and go above and beyond for them. In my own experience as a parent, my third daughter was the subsequent child of a  Sudden Infant Death (SIDS) death, my only son having died of SIDS prior to her birth. My other daughters used to tease her and call her Velcro because we held her so tight, but we did not want anything to happen to her. Years later, when she graduated from college, I was so worried about her going off on her own that I even Feng Shui’d my home so that she might launch better. What I realized, with the help of counseling, was that my old patterns of hovering and wrapping her in a bubble of love and worry had created roadblocks. Rather than helping, these roadblocks had (temporarily) stunted her launch. 

I recently worked with two separate families who were afraid of (and for) their adult daughter and adult son. They believed these young adults could not thrive out in the real world. These adult children struggled with learning difficulties and anxiety, and because of these challenges their parents set the bar too low. In doing so, they inadvertently and unconsciously gave their children a false sense of entitlement. These children believed they were owed things (like their parents money, time, and excessive care). When these parents learned their adult children were capable, they felt liberated. Their choice to get a robust assessment, and subsequent treatment, was transformative not only to their lives, but also to the lives of their children. 

Likewise, I have met many young people who thought school was not the answer for them. They dropped out of school and created a “fantasy occupation.” Here in Hollywood, more often than not, parents report that their adult child wants to become a star, a musician, a rap singer, or a video programmer. These adult children stave off anxiety by creating a fantasy world in which they will soon be the next winner on America’s Got Talent, become an award winning songwriter, or will one day work with Spielberg. 

When you challenge the fantasy, your adult child will often strike back. They want to know why you, the parent, don’t trust them or believe in them. They lash out. They leave the parents to pick up the pieces when their dreams inevitably do not come true. While parenting has no easy answers, picking up the pieces (so you, the parent, feel better) may in the long run be detrimental to your child. Instead, parents might consider setting boundaries in what I like to call “compassionate directness,” and allow their adult children to experience the consequences of their behavior. I believe this can be the best set of training wheels a parent can offer.

In this ever-evolving world of parenting, it’s best to get expectations and consequences down, so everyone knows where they stand. If it looks like your adult child needs professional help (because of substance misuse and/or anxiety and depression) then it is wise to reach out to a professional like myself who can help assess the situation. A professional can also give appropriate treatment recommendations, and help guide you as parents to reset and craft boundaries (with love and compassion) that will help launch your adult child into the world. 

Dr. Louise Stanger Ed.D, LCSW, CIP, CDWF