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Failure to Launch Syndrome: Removing the Parental Safety Net

Failure to Launch: Removing the Parental Safety Net

By Amalah

Dear Amalah,

First off, I am a big fan. Your blog and advice column got me through the newborn days with my baby boy. Thanks to you, I even tried cloth diapering, and love it. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences, wit, and wisdom.

Now, for my question. My mother has recently come to me for advice regarding my younger sister, and I would like your input as well. She is 22 and taking classes at a local community college. My mom and stepdad are paying her bills- rent, lights, groceries, all of it. The thing is, she had a really good job that my stepdad lined up for her. One day, she just walked out of the office and never went back, without a word to her boss or anyone. She then moved back in with my mom and stepdad (who are also raising my 12 year old brother) and decided to go back to school. My mom found an apartment in town where the rent was reasonable, and they moved her there with the understanding that they would help her with expenses until she found a job and could pay her own bills. Since she has made very little effort to find any reliable means of support, my mom has been paying her to do basic housework, but they’ve caught her on the security cameras watching tv/playing on her phone instead of doing the work they asked her to do.

They are fed up, and understandably so. This has been going on for several months now. She has a history of doing the bare minimum to get by, has never said thank you for anything, and is perfectly content with the way things are. So, the question is, what would you advise? Do they cut her off cold turkey and tell her she has to start standing on her own two feet? Give her a date (a month or so away) by which to have another source of income? I know my mom would never let her go hungry or homeless, but they can’t afford to keep paying for two households and want her to be independent, rather than moving back home again. Not to mention, the lack of gratitude is not going over well. I’m in the tough love camp, but am I being too harsh? What advice should I give my mom?

Thanks,
B

Wow, so your sister is basically a walking, talking (and not doing much else) textbook case of Failure to Launch syndrome. While that’s not a diagnosis you’ll find in the DSM, it is increasingly A Thing that many therapists and psychologists recognize to be A Thing. (Also a terribly mediocre Matthew McConaughey movie, yes.)

So to start, I’d recommend your parents do some research/reading on the topic (skip the movie! it’s not very good!), and find a local family therapist or psychologist to help both your sister (who may also possibly be suffering from underlying depression, given some of the behaviors you’ve mentioned here) and help them map out an action plan to get her out on her own. Here are a few articles/resources I pulled together from a basic web search; I’m sure a deeper dig and maybe trip to a good bookstore will yield even more:

This issue tends to be pretty complicated: Yes, your parents have clearly created an enabling situation where your sister is completely immune to failure or consequences, which are things we as humans do need to experience from time to time. From finding her jobs and apartments, your sister hasn’t had to accomplish anything on her own or even figure out any real goals, interests or passions. (And the personal growth and life satisfaction that comes from pursuing and accomplishing things that YOU want for YOURSELF, rather than the things your parents expect of you, or stuff that’s just handed to you.) It all leads to a profound sense of feeling adrift and indifferent, without any internal direction or motivation. And while it’s certainly tempting to write off her current behavior and ingratitude as Basic Spoiled Brat Syndrome, many young adults who fail to launch are actually struggling with other diagnosed attention or learning problems, or anxiety/depression issues.  (Girls with ADD, in particular, are super likely to fall through the cracks because it doesn’t necessarily impact them in school the way it does for boys. But it can wreak havoc as they try to transition to the independent adult world of jobs and bills and life-skill details. Your sister’s history of getting by on “the bare minimum” amount of effort is a bit of a red flag here.)

So I guess I’m proposing a measured tough-love approach that will ultimately remove the safety net your parents are currently serving as, but only with guidance and input from a therapist or psychologist. Otherwise I see the cycle just repeating — she gets a job she doesn’t want because your parents “make” her do it, she quits or gets fired, she changes her major over and over, she doesn’t pay the rent like she promised and loses the apartment, your parents get increasingly frustrated but continue to justify supporting her (“we can’t let her go hungry/homeless! we have to at least pay for her phone/car/clothing so she can get a job!”).

Meanwhile, she’s not going to even try to get a job because why should she, when she has zero goals or motivation and the secure knowledge that she’ll never go hungry/homeless and someone else will always pay for her phone/car/clothing. And so another ultimatum gets thrown down, but because her underlying issues (whatever they may be) are still unaddressed, she’ll try but ultimately misfire again. And your parents are going to find it hard to break 22 years’ worth of cushioning-the-fall habits hard to break, and continue to enable her on some level because they don’t feel like there’s any other choice. There is! It’s just going to take some work from both them AND her. So rather than setting her up with another job or apartment, set her up with a therapist appointment.

Photo source: Depositphotos/duben

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Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Comments

  • Caroline

    I think Amy is spot-on here. I think the ”walking out of a job that your mom lined up without a word” would merit a deep showdown and proper explanation of why and how she has come to believe this is acceptable. It would not result in ”move in while we tend to your every need”. But clearly that’s in the past, and maybe the young lady does have a few issues that warrant addressing. Her parents could sign her up for a few sessions and then go for a couple themselves to address How to Stop Enabling Dysfunction effectively.

    I tend to be of the opinion however, that barring extreme mental illness, saying ”right, so you now have an apartment and a course all figured out. In 3 months, no more money, ever!” tends to get things ticking along. It’s a generous period of time, and if she ends up couch-surfing for a bit because of her own actions, well…

    well.

    But yes, therapy, as long as she’s willing to go and do the work is a great idea. I might even make whatever agreed-upon time frame for continued financial underwriting be contingent upon attending therapy. And then there’s the little bit where *even if she cries and shows up on the doorstep with a suitcase you still give her a nice hug, possibly dinner and a chat and then ask if you can call her a cab*. Must stick to guns!

  • Kerry Clifford

    I’d find it interesting if your sister didn’t give even a lame reason for walking away from her job. (It was stifling her creativity! Cubicles/uniforms/schedules are lame! There was this one supervisor, who was like, totally unreasonable, and chewed her out even though she was only like, 20 minutes late back from lunch.).

    Maybe a good place to start would to ask her what happened (if you haven’t already)? At the very least, it could open up a conversation about what is and isn’t reasonable to expect from a job…and it may be that your sister needs someone to talk to about what happened. Sometimes middle-aged stepdads aren’t great at predicting how 22 year old women are going to be treated in a particular office or job.

  • Vickie

    Really good advice to work thru a therapist instead of trying to manage this on their own. As I read the letter, I was not sure what a good course of action might be because I realized there was 22 years leading up to the present situation.

    PS – I personally think step parents need to be friendly, but not try to parent their step children (at all). I realized the letter did not go into details. But I wondered about the family dynamics because that can have a great deal to do with all of this. And everyone is assuming she just walked away from the job for no reason when something inappropriate might have happened. Maybe not, but maybe so.

    • Kerry

      I think that’s a really good point about the 22 years leading up to the present situation. I’m finding that I’m full of questions…

      How long was she living independently before this? How long was she out of school? When she was in school before, did your parents support her or was she on her own? Is she being paid hourly for housework, such that sitting down and watching TV instead is obviously trying to cheat the system, or could she possibly be under the impression that she has the option of getting things done at her own pace as if it was her own house? Do the parents share the daughter’s goals for her education? Does she have clear goals for her education? Is the expectation that she will work full time and go to school full time (very few colleges would recommend this)? Are student loans a possibility?

  • JM

    As the parent of a 20 yo, I would not be paying for an apartment, that is for sure. My husband and I brought my son home after some unacceptable circumstances he found himself in after living on his own. Not saying she’ll do the same, but living at home seems to have motivated mine to get back on his feet. She needs a real job, not chores. I’d start there.

  • Cheryl S.

    My only advice is to deal with it before it gets even worse. If they don’t change the dynamic (both their own and your sisters) they will be supporting her forever. How do I know? Well, I have a brother. He’s 41. My parents are constantly bailing him out and I assume they will be until they die. I’ve already told my mom she better make sure he has a trust or something, because I am not even in a positiion to be able to support him, nor do I want to. Good Luck!

  • S

    I’m with Cheryl – this stuff doesn’t go away unless something seriously changes (both on the parents side and the kid’s side). My husband has a sister. She’s nice. Had a full ride to a reputable college. Turned that down, has worked dead end, minimum wage jobs for the last 20 years, including multiple periods of not working at all/existing on welfare. Has been bailed out or subsidized on more occasions than I can count, and continues to make poor financial choices. There isn’t anything “wrong” with her – she just knows that she doesn’t have to be responsible for herself. I’m all for living the way you want to live (and if paycheck to paycheck and asking for $ from your retired/semi-retired parents (who have no significant savings for themselves) is your jam, then so be it. But we’ve had to make it clear that we will never be contributing members of the “family safety net”. At this point, I don’t know what, short of “you are over 30, married and have 2 children of your own – no more help, sorry” my in laws can even do. They are just as much responsible for the situation as she is, and I would imagine the case is similar in the OP’s situation. Some of us have that internal drive/independence, some of us don’t. Therapy sounds great, but it’s not a fix all, especially if little sister has become the “identified patient” (google it). My suggestion to OP is actually to stay out of it. No more listening to her parents lament the situation, no more advice or support for little sister. I know my husband loves his sister dearly, but her behavior (and the cause and effect on their parents side) has created huge rifts and resentment on all sides.