Failure to Launch: Removing the Parental Safety Net
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?
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:
- Overview & treatment plan for Failure to Launch Syndrome at the Optimum Performance Institute
- Failure to Launch Syndrome at Psychology Today
- Failure to Launch Syndrome at Huffington Post
- Parenting Your Emerging Adult (Amazon)
- Emptying the Nest: Launching Your Young Adult toward Success and Self-Reliance (Amazon)
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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