Adult Child Still Living At Home? How To Spot ‘Failure To Launch Syndrome’


In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of young adults failing to move out of the relative comfort of their parent’s home, and start life as independent adults. They refuse to engage with activities that typically define being an adult, such as higher education and employment, and this behavior is often linked with depression, isolation, and sometimes substance abuse issues.

As of July 2022, more than half of young adults (58 percent)—defined as 18 to 24-year-olds—were living with their parents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Psychologist Dan Kiley popularized the term “Peter Pan Syndrome” in his 1983 book Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up, after noticing that, like the titular character in the J. M. Barrie play, many of the troubled teenage boys he treated had problems growing up and accepting adult responsibilities. Research shows that failure to launch more commonly affects men than women.

While the stereotype of an attic-dwelling man-child invites insults such as “loser,” the phenomenon is more complicated than simplistic labels may indicate and its origins can be ambiguous.

Newsweek has spoken to mother and author Shari Jonas, whose TikTok on failure to launch has been viewed over half a million times, and John McGeehan, founder and CEO of The Dorm, an organization guiding young adults toward independence.

This stock image shows a teenager in his bedroom. Failure to launch typically describes adults—ranging in age from 18 to their 30s—lacking the skills and ability to lead an independent life.
denozy/Getty Images

What Is Failure To Launch?

McGeehan defines failure to launch as “an adult (from 18 to late 20s and beyond) who is struggling to accomplish socially constructed ‘adult’ defining behaviors, such as moving out of [their] parents’ home, working full-time, and living independently.”

It is important to make the differentiation between people who are unable to engage with the most basic elements of being an adult, and people who choose to live with their parents because they are in higher education, saving money for a deposit on their own house, earn a low salary or have caregiver responsibilities. People in these types of situations are engaging with life and moving towards eventual independence.

While the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in many lost homes and jobs, the Current Population Survey reported in March 2020 an estimated 60 percent of men aged 18 to 24 and 22 percent of men aged 25 to 34 lived at home. The lockdown was not in full swing at this time and in the same month California became the first state to issue a stay-at-home order.

McGeehan warns, however, that the term “failure to launch” is Eurocentric, “making it limiting to other cultures and ways of life. It’s based on one set of norms or beliefs, so it’s therefore unfair to use it as a label that applies to all families and young adults.”

Jonas agrees and lists the following behaviors as possible evidence that a person is struggling with failure to launch:

  • Absolutely no responsibilities
  • Zero contributions to home chores
  • Lacks the confidence / ambition / motivation to live an independent life
  • Struggles to handle rejection and withdraws socially
  • Resists opportunities for help and shifts the blame on to everyone else

What Causes Failure To Launch?

Failure to launch is not a medically diagnosable condition, rather it is a symptom of a complex combination of factors, some inevitable, some avoidable. Parenting, mental health, trauma and underlying health conditions are some of the ingredients in the cocktail that can result in an adult struggling to equip themselves for independence.

“It’s rarely an anomaly”, says Jonas. “There are things we need to look into to actually move on from failure to launch. When it comes to failure to launch, parents have to take responsibility for their parenting styles. Why can’t this 30-year-old use the dishwasher, why don’t they want to cook for themselves? We’ve all heard of helicopter parents, but we’re now more than ever seeing this worrying style known as bulldozing.”

A helicopter parent is defined by Merriam Webster as a parent who is overly involved in the life of his or her child, while they define a bulldozer parent as a someone who removes any obstacle that might result in frustration or setback for their child.

McGeehan explains that at The Dorm, “we support many young adults who are struggling during this stage of development and present with a complex set of diagnostic concerns such as anxiety, depression, mood disorders, OCD and ADHD.”

Social and economic issues mean that mental health problems are at an all-time high, a concern that McGeehan argues often gets overlooked by parents dealing with failure to launch.

What Impact Can Failure To Launch Have?

Feelings of shame, anger, frustration, and denial can engulf families.

“Over time, if someone is continually told they are a failure, or convince themselves, they start to believe it,” says McGeehan. “Being ‘the failure’ becomes their identity. The shame and embarrassment the parents or family members feel also project and pile onto the child, exacerbating the situation. Ultimately it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that could have been prevented.”

McGeehan also emphasizes that in some cultures multi-generational living is the norm. Many cultures are less likely to see children living at home as a problem, as it may be part of their heritage or way of life, and stigmatizing children living at home as a problem could have the dangerous effect of causing these cultures and children to be judged and discredited.

A young adult experiencing failure to launch is struggling, but the impact of their behavior ultimately has a knock-on effect on all those around them.

“Parents are often afraid,” says Jonas. “Their adult children lash out, they can be violent, stroppy and aggressive, they’re not nice, and the parents become afraid and all discipline goes out of the window.”

“Many parents feel guilt for enabling their behavior, and secondly they feel embarrassed that all their friends are celebrating their adult children’s achievements, while they’re still doing their laundry. They go into denial so they don’t have to admit that they have failed, and turn a blind eye and hope that it will fix itself.”

Adult father and son
This stock photos shows a father and his adult son. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, in March 2020, an estimated 60 percent of men aged 18–24, and 22 percent of men aged 25 to 34, lived at home.
Drazen Zigic/Getty Images

A group that are almost always overlooked in a failure to launch scenario are siblings.

“Failure to launch is really, really hard on the siblings” said Jonas. “Imagine how it feels. They made the leap, they did what they had to do, struggled, and they watch their sibling just sit around and get waited on hand and foot contributing to nothing.”

She adds that tensions can rise when parents have no attention left for the independent child, there’s not enough money left to help out if they need it, and the bar is so low that their achievements go under-appreciated.

McGeehan also points out that younger siblings living in the home “can become parentified, feel like they need to be the hero child, or alternatively act out to get attention focused on them as the parents focus 100 percent on the other sibling.”

How To Overcome Failure To Launch

Despite the complexities of failure to launch, and depending on the severity of the mental health or addiction problems, there are things that can be done.

“First things first, the parents need to start honestly and frankly talking about what’s happened, and what’s happening, with no blame. Presenting a united front, make a plan of action and see it through” says Jonas.

“You don’t have to do anything drastic overnight, but at the very least, stop doing what you’ve been doing. Stop cleaning, cooking, doing their laundry, giving them money. Write up a contract with realistic goals, time frames, non-negotiables, consequences, and expectations. Don’t be afraid of them either, they are not going to break, they are going to grow up. When drugs, alcohol and extreme mental health issues are involved, then you will need professional help.

Adult children
This stock image shows a concerned parent and her daughter. As of July 2022, more than half of young adults (58 percent)— defined as 18 to 24-year-old’s—were living with their parents, according to the U.S Census Bureau.
CREATISTA/Getty Images

“To the adult I would say, stop blaming the world, stop getting angry at your parents or siblings. It’s time to look at yourself, really dig deep and take some responsibility for yourself. Find out what your interests are, your strengths. Being an adult is part of life and you can’t outrun it forever.”

Parents with failure to launch children end up doing a lot for them and with the best of intentions, it ends up making things worse, enabling the adult child’s behavior.

“We tell parents to let their children experience natural consequences of their behaviors. It’s essential that the young adult feel and experience the consequences of their actions—good or bad. Parents can almost view it as creating an independent environment while the child is living at home: leave them to cook a certain number of meals, make doctor’s appointments, or do their laundry on their own.”

“I love the fact that we can do something about it,” concludes Jonas. “It’s never too late to affect change, in your parenting style or as an adult. It’s not a death sentence. It’s difficult to break toxic patterns but I love this phrase, ‘Just do it, scared.'”

If you have a similar family dilemma, let us know via life@newsweek.com. We can ask experts for advice, and your story could be featured on Newsweek.



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