Tiffany had reached her wits end with her nephew the first time she reached out. “I was at home going through emails when he burst through the door,” her voice quivered over the phone. “I could tell he was upset about something. Then I heard the door to his bedroom slam followed by a ferocious crunch. I thought an earthquake had cracked the house into two.”
“Are you and your family safe?” I asked, hoping no harm had come to her. “Yes, I’m fine, nothing like that. When I was finally able to talk to him, I found out his credit hours wouldn’t transfer to another community college because his grades were too low. They wouldn’t take him.”
“How old is your nephew?” I asked. “Twenty-eight.”
She went on to say that her nephew, Stephen, had lost his mother early on to heart complications and the father was out of the picture, so she took him in. He was a normal boy, played sports, had a solid group of friends in high school.
“Stephen wasn’t a National Merit Scholar but he passed all his classes and was primed for college or some kind of technical school. But around this time he stopped talking to me. He shut down and became nervous and secretive around me. I was so worried he’d miss application deadlines, I filled them out for him.”
“What happened?” I wondered as I wrote down the term failure to launch and saran wrap parent on my legal pad as I took notes listening to Tiffany.
“He failed out after the first semester and moved into my spare bedroom. He’s been on this cycle where every other year he gets the courage to reapply and give it another shot but it doesn’t work so he goes back to his part-time night stocking job at a local supermarket. A toddler could do the job. It doesn’t require anything of him.”
“Does he have a history of violence?” I prodded to get a bigger picture of what was going on here. “Not at all. He was the sweetest boy. Ever since high school he’s been on this downward spiral and living under my roof for longer than I can remember. He just doesn’t talk to me anymore,” she began to cry. “What happened to that little boy who would hold my hand when we crossed the street?”
I asked Tiffany if she had ever heard of failure to launch before. She hadn’t and wondered how it would apply to her nephew. I told her that failure to launch is an adolescent’s trouble transitioning into adulthood. The burgeoning young man or woman has not been adequately prepared with the skills necessary to become a fully-functioning adult. And since Stephen is a member of the Millennial generation – those born between 1980 and 2000 – he and his generation faced a unique set of challenges as they moved from childhood into adulthood.
In fact, to better understand this generation, if you look back to the mid-2000s, trends in child development had been shifting for several years toward less play time at home and school, an “everybody is a winner” mentality, and over-protection for Millennial children. Hara Marano, editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, wrote in her book A Nation of Wimps about the turning tide in the way we raise our children.
“Play is all but dead… so many toys are designed by and for adults… [and] sports many kids participate in are managed by adults.” This is a dramatic shift from the days when educators and administrators doled out physical punishment and told children simply to suck it up.
The trends continued into adolescence as the ubiquity of technology and social media took hold of society. Research from Marano’s look into child development shows that college students in the new millennium use cellphones and tablets to maintain a constant connection with their parents. Although parents may see a level of comfort in the age of instant communication, the access gives the student a lifeline, a way out of wrestling with real world problems on a daily basis.
Just as parents are tethered to their children with cellphones, I told Tiffany she was overly involved in her nephew’s affairs because he still lived with her. Thus, I talked to Tiffany about giving Stephen the room to make mistakes and experience the consequences.
Through several telephonic coaching sessions, Tiffany began to understand her behaviors and the impact they have on Stephen, as well as his behaviors and how they keep him trapped in childhood. She learned that it’s easy to get discouraged about a child who is struggling as an emerging adult. Still, there’s hope for him to leave the nest.
Tiffany was also able to look at her own family of origin issues and see how she was hard-wired for success, which only created added pressure for her to see it through with Stephen. She discovered part of successful parenting was the ability to let go, to encourage Stephen to do things on his own, and to let him take responsibility for his successes and failures.
She began to understand how external forces may have had an impact on Stephen’s development into adulthood as well. These external forces – unforeseen economic and social forces – changed the landscape for many Millennials. The collapse of big banks in 2008 and the ensuing fallout made it difficult for millions of Millennials to secure financial independence, a key aspect of transitioning into adulthood.
In addition to this new economic reality, Millennials turned to higher education as a way out — the number of people who went to college spiked 53% since 1970 — and saddled themselves with student loan debt. The uptick in college and debt, in turn, diluted the job market, making it even more difficult to land a good job.
James Cote, a sociologist at the University of Western Ontario and author of Generation On Hold and Arrested Adulthood sees how this economic climate made it tough for Millennial job seekers. “You need a college degree now just to be where blue-collar people the same age were 20 or 30 years ago, and if you don’t have it, then you’re way behind.” This shift may explain the disconnect between a frustrated parent and their child who just moved back home.
Many social changes have pushed the process of adulting further out as well. According to Pew Research, the average American baby boomer married at 21 years of age for women and 23 years of age for men. Today, Millennials are putting off marriage till later — the averages are 27 for women and 29 for men. With such an influential and important touchstone of life saved for late twenties, other key mile markers — buying a home, advancements in career, having kids, saving for retirement — are put off till their thirties. In effect, the major life experiences baby boomers achieved in their twenties are coming to fruition for Millennials in their thirties.
As Tiffany learned about the Millennial experience as it related to Stephen, she began to lighten her pressure on him and that’s when she noticed him open up. “I heard him crying in his bedroom one night and I decided to talk to him about it – not in a forceful, ‘I have all the answers’ sort of way, but I told him to just talk and that I would listen. And guess what? He told me he was gay,” she told me through tears.
“I had my suspicions but Stephen needed the room to come out on his own,” I told her. “It also explained his pent up confusion and anger, which he released when he slammed and broke the door.” She agreed with my assessment of his behavior. “I feel so relieved and happy for him. He said he didn’t know how to come out and the added pressure he felt from me to succeed in a career made him think coming out would only disappoint me further. I told him I loved him no matter his sexuality or where he was at in his life,” she confessed.
With Tiffany realizing Stephen’s stunted growth was related to him coming out, we took several more coaching sessions to discuss clear-cut boundaries she could set for Stephen so he could thrive and grow in his fully realized identity as a gay man. We looked at Stephen’s current responsibilities and what was reasonable for Tiffany to expect from him. Since he worked part time, Tiffany decided that he could pay a portion of the rent and be responsible for doing his own laundry, cleaning his room and taking the trash out on trash days.
The hard work continued. Tiffany developed a blueprint of success for herself as well as Stephen. She looked at her own behaviors and realized she no longer should hover over Stephen like a helicopter, making sure he did his school work, or completing tasks for him like filling out an application.
Tiffany even took steps to take care of herself and joined a gym. She joined a local PFLAG support group, which is a nationwide group of allies for parents of gay and lesbian children. This gave her knowledge and resources specific to Stephen’s needs as an LGBTQ developing young man.
About nine months later, Tiffany expressed that this has been a hard yet necessary journey. Settled with clear boundaries, she found a new freedom in not having to hover and smother Stephen. He managed to finish all his courses, though not without a few hiccups, and was looking at interning at an insurance agency in the fall. Through his own growth process, he discovered he was good at making a sales pitch.
Tiffany recently wrote: “Thank you for helping me understand what’s been going on with Stephen. I blamed him for being lazy for so long and now I see how stepping back, listening and learning and giving him space to become the gay man he is, allowed him to experience life, look at his own behavior and try something different and thrive in his own way.”