Failure to launch

July 16, 2019
Addressing failure to launch

Addressing failure to launch was previously published in the Washington Business Journal column, Corporations on the couch, as “Successful parents must let their children learn from failure,”by Dr. Lynn Friedman, a psychologist in Washington DC.

John is a senior vice president of a Fortune 500 company. A star performer, he has been enormously successful. Renowned for his leadership, he is respected by corporate leaders and staffers alike. In fact, he is beloved. He has provided his family with a life of luxury.

As a young person, John toiled evenings, weekends and summers, earning money for college. His own children had it easy. Their evenings were devoted to extracurricular activities, their weekends and summers to camp and trips abroad. They have attended the finest preparatory schools and colleges.

John’s eldest son, Steve, has returned home to look for a job after earning a degree from a prestigious university. He has been looking for the last six months, although — John muses to himself — “apparently not looking all that hard.”

At first John was sympathetic, but his sympathy turned to frustration as months passed. When Steve asked for money, John lost his patience. His efforts to talk with Steve devolved into a shouting match.

Steve, blaming his parents for his situation, told them that they were more concerned with how his unemployment reflected on them than with his fundamental unhappiness.

Devastated, John found himself wondering how he could have achieved so much professionally while failing so miserably at home. He confided in some similarly accomplished colleagues and learned, to his astonishment, that he is not alone. They regaled him with tales of their own children:

  • A high school dropout who developed a serious addiction while attending one of the nation’s best prep schools. Now he lives at home getting high all day and selling drugs.
  • An Ivy League college student who makes the dean’s list every semester but exists in a state of chronic self-doubt, plagued with overwhelming anxiety and insecurity. She is uncertain about what major to choose. Her anxiety has led to impaired concentration.
  • A very bright graduate of a prestigious business school who is working at a low-level job that pays minimum wage.

John is perplexed by Steve’s conspicuous lack of gratitude, not to mention the lack of ambition. More importantly, John is just plain worried. He would like to understand his son’s behavior and help him.

A complex set of dynamics may govern these puzzling behaviors. These highly successful parents may have unintentionally undermined their children’s efforts to separate, leave home and grow up.

Making life too easy can erode children’s sense of confidence and deprive them of important developmental experiences that lead to healthy self-esteem.

John and his colleagues may have insulated their children from the vital experience of learning to navigate failure and to develop persistence.

By indulging him, Steve’s parents may have sent him a powerful, albeit inadvertent, message that they didn’t see him as very capable. Steve’s rage at his father may spring from an unconscious belief that his father views him as incompetent.

Steve also may feel that his parents were less concerned about helping him to articulate who he is and more worried about how he reflected on them.

He might be genuinely mystified as to who he is, what he wants and what sort of work could bring self-fulfillment. Having to find a job may feel overwhelming, especially since in the past his parents may have done everything for him.

It’s important for John to ask himself, is Steve solving certain conflicts by staying home and remaining unemployed?

Steve may be quite ambivalent about success. He may feel that his needs for a father were eclipsed by his John’s success. He may be enraged at his father for being unavailable. Thus, he may be hesitant to emulate his father, fearing he is doomed to repeat history.

His anger may have prompted him to go on strike to get his father’s attention. Also, he might undermine his own success to deprive his parents of bragging rights.

Another possibility is that John is an incredibly hard act to follow. Steve may be giving up before he’s even started, or conversely may be wary of John’s reaction if the son outstrips the father.

Other dynamics may be involved as well. Does Steve feel he needs to stay home to preserve his parents’ marriage? Does he feel at some level that he has to take care of his parents? Of course, all of these dynamics may be operating outside of Steve’s awareness. And not only the father but also the mother might play a profound role in Steve’s struggle.

Parents in their situation are in a tricky position. Many correctly sense that their child may need psychotherapy or career coaching. However, it can be difficult to offer that support without compounding the very problem they are trying to address.

Since parents typically have a role in the development of these difficulties, they need to change their behavior too. It can be useful for parents to establish expectations that their child must meet to continue living under their roof.

This is not always easy to do. Parents in these situations may benefit from psychological consultation themselves.

If you would like help addressing, failure to launch, in your young adult, you are welcome to call me: 301.656.9650.

 

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