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Inspiring Success on the Road to Recovery

Monday, December 5, 2016

Why Millennials are Failing to Launch

By Gary D. Hees MA, LPC

“Failure to Launch”— a term used to describe a situation in which a young person is unable to leave the protection of the parental home to begin living independently. These three words have gained significant attention recently as more young people are staying in the family home longer than in the past.

The Millennials (anyone born between the early 1980’s and early 2000’s) are facing an unprecedented level of financial insecurity; one of the most challenging job markets in recent history, and an extremely complex and fast-moving social life. While most young adults will effectively navigate these difficult waters and find the will and skill needed to enter independent adulthood, many others will fall by the wayside and find themselves stagnating without a sense of purpose or passion.

Who am I?

This issue is not just about a lack of motivation. The core issue is the lack of development of what Eric Erikson called “Ego Identity.” In plain language, a guiding set of internalized moral values that define and answer the question, “Who am I?” Once a young adult knows who they are, they can begin to decide how to express their identity in the world around them, often in terms of a career or a vocation of service. Parents and home life play a huge part in this development. Literature on the subject cites several factors impacting the development of identity, purpose and independent functioning. Permissive parenting or parenting that is not supportive of independent decision-making and functioning (Helicopter parenting) is closely correlated with lack of identity development, lower levels of moral reasoning, an external focus of control (giving in to peer pressure) and difficulty differentiating from the family and parents.

When developmental maturity is incomplete we see the formation, and later, concretization, of negative cognitions about the self. Most commonly, and in general, the beliefs are the negative side of the dichotomies presented by Eric Erikson as the stages of human development.

Rather than trust of self and others, there is mistrust, particularly of self, resulting in a sense of hopelessness and resignation. Some young adults avoid trying —  because they do not believe they can trust themselves to succeed.

Rather than autonomy, there is a sense of shame and doubt, often exhibited and interpreted by others as a lack of will and direction. These young adults will under-function, leaving it to others to ‘do it’ for them. In a sense, they demand an over-functioning counterpart, (parents), and will become expectant of being ‘taken care of’ the more this dynamic persists in the family.

There is a sense of passivity and taking initiative is rarely seen, with the exception of seeking, finding and using mind-altering substances and a job that provides subsistence. There is little or no sense of purpose. These young adults are often unemployed or under-employed, and are seemingly passionless and unengaged in life beyond a repetitive pattern of living.

Asking the question “Who are you” often provokes anxiety and anger, for the answer to that question is often unknown. This lack of identity generates tremendous anxiety and a sense that all activities are basically meaningless. This mental state often is expressed as response to peer pressure rather than thoughtful, independent decision-making. The relationships of ‘failure-to-launch’ young adults are often chaotic and characterized by using others and allowing themselves to be used.
Erickson’s vision of intimacy, the sharing of ones’ self with another, is blunted by the lack of knowledge of ones’ own self. How can we share what we don’t know?

If the above were not enough, other obstacles co-occur causing significant exacerbation of these factors and, unfortunately, reinforcing the negative cognitions of the self.  Some obstacles include mental health issues, trauma, substance use disorders and issues of organization and reasoning (Executive Functioning). These factors exacerbate a lack of identity and can make thriving in today's demanding world exceedingly painful and difficult for young people at a time when they are forming opinions of themselves and their relationship to others that will shape the rest of their personal and professional lives.

Failure to Launch and substance use disorder often go hand-in-hand. 

Whether young people succumb to substance misuse and lose the ability to focus and work effectively, or if they are self-medicating to overcome underlying mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, where you find failure to launch, you often find substance use disorder.

What the entire substance use disorder treatment industry must acknowledge is the extent to which Failure to Launch and substance use are intertwined. Treating substance use disorders in young adults without addressing failure to launch is tantamount to putting a band-aid on a gash. Lasting positive results will be, at best, elusive.

After years of recovery, and countless readings of The Big Book, I see the Fellowship of AA and recovery as the means to have a life, not the end purpose of life. It is a natural progression, if one is to address a failure to live in a positive and productive way, to use the 12 Steps to foster identity and integrity, and then to facilitate the young adult realizing the amazing array of choices open to them and help them direct that energy into a useful and fulfilling life. Why be satisfied with half measures?
In addition, developing the skills and mentality required to complete education, attain meaningful work, maintain relationships and live independently play a critical role in treating this condition. To address this wide range of needs, assistance must be given with identity achievement, mental health disorders, functional relationship building, educational, career counseling, and the trauma often found in people suffering from this issue. Life skill work instills good and healthful behaviors and thinking, including the areas of nutrition and financial literacy needed to live a healthy, productive and promising life.

Gary D. Hees MA, LPC has worked in Behavioral Health for 22 years. He received his Master’s degree from the University of Houston-Clear Lake in Psychology-Marriage and Family Therapy. Gary has been licensed in Texas and Arizona for sixteen years. His has worked with Seriously Mentally Ill adults, adolescents in long-term treatment and presently with young adults. Gary’s clinical orientation is developmental and trauma informed. He is trained in Ericksonian Hypnosis, Motivational Interviewing, EMDR, Pia Mellody’s Post-Induction Model and multiple Family Therapy modalities. Gary has years of experience working with addiction, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder.