Navigating the Path to Independence in Young Adults

By Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Ashburn Psychological & Psychiatric Services

The phenomenon of young adults struggling to transition into the next stage of life has become increasingly common in recent years, and this “failure to launch” or “failure to thrive” can have profound consequences.

As a psychologist, I frequently work with parents concerned about their children’s inability to mature and become independent. These parents often ask, “What did we do wrong?” or “How did we get here?” Multiple factors can contribute to young adults being delayed or off track developmentally. First, identifying the contributing factors and then fostering an environment and a game plan that promotes growth, autonomy, and empowerment is the best approach to addressing the failure to launch.

Various factors contribute to a young adult’s inability to transition into adulthood successfully. These include emotional and social immaturity, mental health struggles, and overly lenient or uninvolved parenting.

Emotional & Social Immaturity
Some young adults struggle to form meaningful relationships, manage emotions, or adapt to new situations. This can hinder their ability to successfully navigate the challenges of adult life, such as attending college, moving out of the house, or securing employment.

Mental Health Struggles
Depression, ADHD, substance use, anxiety, and pervasive developmental disorders can all impact a young adult’s ability to thrive. These mental health challenges can make it difficult for them to cope with the demands of independence, often leading to a failure to launch.

Overly Lenient, Inconsistent, or Uninvolved Parenting
Parenting styles that do not provide adequate guidance or support can also contribute to a young adult’s failure to thrive. Without goals, clear boundaries, or accountability, young adults may not develop the necessary skills or resilience to succeed in the next stage of life.

By understanding the underlying causes of the problem, parents can help their young adults develop targeted interventions to address these issues.

To help young adults overcome the obstacles they face and successfully transition into adulthood, it is essential to empower the struggling individual. This can be achieved by creating structure, developing a roadmap for increased autonomy, and seeking professional help when necessary.

Creating Structure Toward Positive Growth
Establishing a structured environment can give young adults the stability and routine to develop essential life skills. This may involve setting clear goals within the family home with chores and/or other ways to contribute, providing consistent guidance, and implementing incentives and consequences when goals are achieved or are not achieved.

Developing a Roadmap for Increased Autonomy & Agency
To foster a sense of independence, young adults need opportunities to make their own decisions and experience the consequences.

Parents can help by gradually increasing their children’s responsibilities, encouraging them to take on more challenging tasks, and providing support as they navigate new experiences. For example, if your son or daughter gets a job, you can help them to create a savings and spending plan with goals.

Or, if your son or daughter wants to attend a four-year college, but they are behind, you could help them create a plan; perhaps they could start with a class or two at community college where they can eventually accumulate enough credits to transfer to a four-year college. For example, Northern Virginia Community College has a fantastic, guaranteed admissions program in which students who earn an Associate’s Degree can transfer to an in-state university if the requirements are met.

I have seen dozens and dozens of young adults who did poorly in high school go on to do well at Northern Virginia Community College and then transfer to UVA, William and Mary, Virginia Tech, and other great Virginia universities.

Seeking Professional Help
For some young adults, therapy and/or medications may be necessary to address the mental health challenges that have contributed to their failure to launch. Individuals with significant anxiety, depression, social struggles, substance abuse, or screen time addiction most often require help. By working with a mental health professional, young adults can develop coping strategies and gain the insight and self-awareness they need to overcome challenges.

As a psychologist, I have also found that meaningful and lasting changes occur most from not only helping the young adult who is struggling to thrive but also from supporting parents. This involves guiding parents on how to support their young adult child’s development best and addressing any conflicts within the family system.

Empowering Parents
By educating parents about the factors contributing to their adult child’s failure to launch, they can better understand their role in supporting their child’s growth. This may involve adjusting their parenting style, setting appropriate expectations, or seeking additional support.

Addressing Family Dynamics
A young adult’s failure to thrive may be linked to issues within the family unit. This could include unresolved conflicts, poor communication, or unaddressed mental health concerns for the young adult about important others (e.g., upset due to parental alcoholism, overly harsh parenting, etc.). If family dynamic issues are significant, addressing them and fostering a supportive and nurturing environment for all involved is important.

Encouraging Open Communication
Open and honest communication is essential for addressing the challenges associated with failure to launch. When family members can more openly express their concerns and needs, it can ease the way for young adults to develop more effective solutions in their journey toward independence.

Failure to launch is a complex and multifaceted issue. However, by understanding the factors contributing to this phenomenon and implementing strategies to empower struggling young adults, it is possible to create a supportive environment fostering growth, autonomy, and agency.