Failure to Launch Syndrome: Do Trauma, Addiction, and Mental Health Play a Role?

May 19, 2020

Written by

Claudia Black Young Adult Center

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Adulthood is an important rite of passage, but the transition isn’t a smooth one for everyone. When a young person experiences a “failure to launch,” what’s behind it? Addiction and mental health issues can be prevalent in young adults who struggle to thrive out on their own. But is failure to launch syndrome a result of substance abuse or mental health conditions, or is it the other way around? Some young adults may be dealing with depression or other psychiatric conditions due to an inability to find a job or build their bank account. Others may resist the obligations of adulthood due to underlying issues.

What Is Failure to Launch?

He or she has reached an age where independence is expected (18 years or older) but may be refusing to work, attend school, or engage in any kind of training. Instead, the individual continues to pursue a dependent lifestyle that many parents feel obligated to accommodate.

Not every young adult will respond in the same way. Some may display apathy or anxiety and seem unable to cope with the responsibilities of adulthood. They may indulge in immature behaviors, engage in substance use, avoid situations they consider stressful, and be reliant on parents or family members for food, shelter, and financial resources. In severe cases, young adults may foster a full-blown addiction or experience worsening mental health symptoms. The question then becomes, how is a young adult’s failure to launch connected to his or her substance use and mental state?

Which Came First, Behavioral Issues or Failure to Launch?

Failure to launch may be brought on by a variety of circumstances. Here are a few that may provide context to an individual’s struggle to achieve independence:

  • Overprotective parents. Young adults who are overprotected may extend their adolescence because their coping skills have simply never developed, according to a University of Granada study reported by Science Daily. Because experiencing need is unfamiliar, it drives fear in these young adults, who look to parents to resolve it. Parents feeling responsible for the child’s dependence may continue to reinforce the cycle, unsure of how to equip the young adult with the necessary skills to thrive on their own. If the child had traumatic experiences growing up or had a physical or mental health condition in their early years, parents may have been quick to shelter the child from other challenges.
  • Early-onset of mental health issues or traumatic experiences. Young adults who experienced anxietydepressionADHD, or other mental health conditions from a young age may have been more likely to cope in unhealthy ways. The same is true for those who faced trauma, which left them feeling vulnerable and seeking escape. The urge to self-medicate or act out may have put them more directly into harm’s way. As negative experiences increased, the child may have become more dependent, triggering parents to either overprotect or enforce disciplinary measures to little or no success. Without the development of coping skills or positive identity formation, these children may have become more likely to refuse the obligations of adulthood, out of fear, anger, exacerbated mental health issues, or spiraling addiction.
  • Economic downturns or cultural shifts. Times of crisis such as the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in economic downturns, making it more difficult for young adults to make their way in the world. Innovations in technology and travel have inadvertently resulted in the fragmenting of communities, which has brought about greater feelings of personal isolation, according to a 2017 study titled “Economic Conditions of Young Adults Before and After the Great Recession.” Some young adults may have found themselves living at home with parents due to an inability to support themselves given the economic climate. Feelings of helplessness and isolation may have evolved into depressive episodes and anxiety. Unable to achieve independence after a period of time, they may have simply given up. This forfeiture may have also fostered the desire to numb themselves through drugs or alcohol, worsening the severity of any mental health conditions they may have had.

Dr. Claudia Black on How Childhood Trauma Affects Young Adults

When to Intervene or Seek Treatment

It’s worth noting that not feeling useful can have a strong effect on a young adult’s mental health. A 2018 BMC Public Health study found that adolescents and young adults who were involuntarily not engaged in education, employment, or training were more likely to experience mood, behavioral, and substance use disorders, even demonstrating suicidal behaviors. It also reported that 50% of mental health disorders develop before the age of 21, and failure to launch only served to exacerbate those behavioral health issues.

According to a 2018 BMC Public Health study, 50% of mental health disorders develop before the age of 21, and failure to launch only served to exacerbate those behavioral health issues.

Approximately one in 10 US adults will develop a drug use disorder in their lifetime, according to a study published in Human Psychopharamcology. Young adults with failure to launch syndrome can be considered a vulnerable population for substance abuse, given their propensity toward mental health conditions and access to parents’ resources. A 2019 study published in the American Journal On Addictions reported that young adults abusing multiple substances had a higher rate of mental health conditions. Since substance abuse and mental health conditions often perpetuate each other, it is difficult to know which came first. What’s most important is treatment and intervention, since issues like these tend to worsen instead of resolving on their own.

Help for Young Adults at the Claudia Black Young Adult Center

Parents who feel at a loss for how to help children who have experienced failure to launch, whether by their own choice or not, can seek the help of professionals in determining the root cause. Young adults abusing substances or suffering from mental health conditions can recover with therapeutic intervention. At the Claudia Black Young Adult Center, we know that patient and family histories are often complicated and have multiple layers. We don’t respond with judgment, only compassion, and seek to engage with families to resolve important issues. We want to see young adults form their own identities and recover from trauma, mental health conditions, and addiction. We believe they have an excellent chance of achieving personal and emotional independence.

If you are wondering whether your adult child may need treatment, please contact our team today. We would love to speak with you and help you determine next steps. Our groundbreaking, intensive, experientially based treatment program has helped thousands of young adults build a healthy identity, recover from addiction and mental health issues, and learn to thrive again.