Sometimes, a situation becomes so common or concerning in a society that a “diagnosis” begins to spring up from pop culture, rather than the fields of medicine or psychology. Some move on to become true diagnoses, much in the way “shell shock” later evolved into PTSD. Others, like “affluenza,” will likely never go on to be anything more than a way for society to capture frustration at the direction it’s moving in.
What is “Failure to Launch”?
“Failure to Launch Syndrome” is one of these unofficial diagnoses, popularized by the 2006 movie “Failure to Launch” (starring Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker…and earning a whopping 24% on RottenTomatoes.com”). Generally, Failure to Launch refers to the condition in which an adolescent attends college, but then moves back into their parents’ home (either because they failed to finish college or fail to find a job out of college that allows them to support themselves on their own). While a brief period of returning home after college is normal, the situation referred to in failure to launch refers to a prolonged period of time, particularly if the young adult isn’t making any progress toward becoming self-sustaining. While this phenomenon isn’t exclusive to males, many typically picture sons in a failure to launch situation, as opposed to daughters. (What did you think of when you heard the term? In a very un-scientific poll of my colleagues, the most popular image that came to mind was a young man living in his parents’ basement, working a part time job, drinking lots of beer and playing lots of video games.)
So, in the pop-psychology diagnosis chart, what is failure to launch syndrome? Is it closer to the “this is a real thing” category, like shell shock? Or is it “the thing that’s not really a thing” like affluenza? I’d say it rests pretty squarely in the middle—it’s what happens when frustrating social conditions meet a budding or mild mental health condition, causing a sharp and sudden spike in the symptoms of that disorder. I’ll leave other experts to discuss the social factors in detail, but the rising cost of college education, the relative wage stagnation for entry level jobs (great recession), the rising cost of housing, and, perhaps most importantly, the move of the average age of marriage to closer to 30 than ever before.
Failure to Launch Statistics
While all millennials face these challenges, the vast majority still (around 70% of 18-34 year olds) “launch” and live elsewhere after leaving their parents’ house. So what makes these 30% different? What makes this group unable to overcome what many others their age struggled through? Consider that around 20% of the population struggles with a mental illness and another 10% struggles with a substance use disorder, and I think you’re well on your way to determining a big factor. (Note: this won’t explain all cases—this is “back of the envelope” math; there will be a sizable chunk of these cases explained by other factors like poverty, structural racism, etc. I don’t mean to discount these, I simply wish to explore another major factor—behavioral health problems.)
Failure to Launch & Frustration Tolerance
When we look at behaviors in the behavioral health world (that is, substance use and mental health treatment), one important thing that we consider is frustration tolerance. Frustration tolerance refers to the ability of a person to maintain control in light of a situation that puts stress on that person, or the ability to tolerate unpleasant feelings without having a significant reaction. Someone with high frustration tolerance would be able to maintain control in very frustrating situations—persisting in applying for your dream job despite dozens of rejections, studying even harder for a test after failing the first two, etc. Conversely, someone with low frustration tolerance would tend to engage in a defensive behavior when presented with frustrating situations (avoid, repress, displace, regress, rationalize, etc.). These defensive behaviors can act as fuel for a mental illness or substance use disorder that was lying just beneath the surface or one that was already starting to present. There are several defenses that, when engaged in, feed the behavior that causes failure to launch syndrome.
Failure to Launch & Regression
The most obvious of them all may be a regression-type behavior. When we regress, we change our behavior on a subconscious level and act the way we did before we faced the stressor. In teens that encounter significant difficulties the first few years of college, something in their mind snaps back to “that time when things were better.” Sometimes, this may be a conscious thought, in the vein of “wow, college is not what everyone said it would be—high school was way better.” Other times, and most often, this is a more unconscious thought, where we begin to return to mom and dad to try and solve our problems, vs. attempting to tackle them again on our own (and learn skills in the process). At the extreme, this is the student that quits college after their first year to move back home. If this person doesn’t resolve the feelings that they had around that experience, this could generalize into a state in which anything that would take them away from home becomes a threat to be avoided or countered. Paradoxically, this can grow into a resentment of well-meaning parents who are trying to “get them on their feet again,” and significantly strain the parent-child relationship. This can lead to either anxiety (regarding meeting the expectation of moving forward) or depression (feeling unable and inadequate to accomplish the goal).
Failure to Launch & Avoidance
Perhaps next obvious is the avoidance-type reaction like distancing. This can involve putting mental, emotional, or physical distance between you and the problems you are facing. The extreme and obvious example would be to move back home to “run” from the fact that you are not having success finding a job after college. At home, you will be supported by your parents and not need to deal with the discomfort of the inevitable rejections that accompany any job search. Emotional and mental distance, while less tangible, are easily gained by immersing oneself in substance use or other high excitement, low effort activities like video gaming or gambling. The common characteristic of these activities is that they can distract for hours on end and leave no mental room to consider their situation. This defense will most often lead to a substance use disorder, but can occasionally lead to anxiety if they are unable to put that distance between them and the situation.
Failure to Launch & Intellectualizing
Finally, there are the intellectualizing type reactions. These generally involve interpreting the situation in one of two general ways—either the problem is with me, and will always be with me, or, the problem is with them/the system and can never be fixed. When thoughts become distorted in this way, it leads to resignation to unhappiness. In other words, “if the problem is always with me, and I can never be fixed, then why try?” or “The world is rigged against me to fail, so I’m not going to play their game.” These types of distorted thoughts would fuel failure to launch syndrome, and, because they are irrational thoughts, may be confusing or frustrating to those that care about them. This will most often lead to or exacerbate symptoms of depression, but can trigger some anxious symptoms as well.
At the simplest level, then, we see failure to launch as really a failure to tolerate distress; when the pressure or negativity becomes too much for someone (remember, ‘too much’ is a very individual thing), they cope by engaging in defensive reactions. People that struggle with certain mental health conditions will experience a lowered distress tolerance as part of their condition, making them even more prone to “fail to launch.” Even for those who don’t begin their transition-age years with a mental health condition, continuing to engage in these behaviors over a period of time can cause one to develop. In particular, the following behavioral health conditions would be most often associated with failure to launch:
- Adjustment Disorder: as a clinician, this is the disorder I’d be looking for first. This disorder is characterized by symptoms like low mood, sadness, anxiety, worry, anger, isolation, or hopelessness. These symptoms occur only after an identifiable stressor (moving out, losing a job, etc.). In addition to causing the person distress, the reaction either is more intense than is culturally appropriate for the stressor, or persists longer than normal (accounting for culture). The distress would be bad to the point where it interferes with school, work, or other normal life.
- Depressive Disorders: While Adjustment Disorder is likely to develop after the stressor, it’s more likely that those who experience failure to launch due to depression were already experiencing some form of depressed mood prior to the stressor. Thus, you see the major life event really expanding some of those symptoms, and it goes from passive low moods to a full-on depression. Since many of the symptoms involve low energy, feelings of worthlessness, and decreased self-esteem, it can be very easy for those that struggle with depression at this vulnerable time in their lives to just “give up” hope of becoming what they see as normal or successful.
- Substance Use Disorders: this would be the “middle ground” between anxiety and depression, in the sense that it can blow infrequent substance use/experimentation up into a full blown addiction; likewise, one could start turning to substances to cope only after experiencing the stressor. Either way, substance use represents a dangerous path of denial and escape from the stressors until life begins to collapse around them, and they run out of options aside from returning home in the throes of an addiction, placing a difficult task on the family that loves them and wants to support them.
As we’ve explored some of the behaviors that contribute to failure to launch and some of the mental health disorders that are associated with it, we see that it largely revolves around the concept of frustration tolerance. While those with low frustration tolerance are most at risk to fail to launch, the good news is that frustration tolerance is something you can work to build both on your own and in therapy. Stay tuned for part two of this blog to learn about what things can cause low frustration tolerance and how to build frustration tolerance to overcome some of the things that keep people “stuck” in situations that don’t work for them.