Failure to Launch Syndrome in the Modern Young Adult and the Levels of Concern

Alisha Adrian BS, MS, LPC, TP, EAP/EAL
Gateways to Transformation, LLC & Rites of Passage, LLC


Failure to Launch Syndrome in the Modern Young Adult and the Levels of Concern

Failure to Launch Syndrome is used to describe someone who is not able to move successfully out of their teen years in high school, into independent living, or moving forward toward college or other life goals.

There can be many reasons for this uncertainty. Young adults exhibiting this issue can display a huge variety of symptoms up to and including:

  •  Lack of motivation for school or other pursuits
  •  Indifference to having a vision for their future
  •  Lack of life skills
  •  Choosing to stay at parents’ home to play video games or other ways of diversion
  •  Poor or no work ethic
  •  Lack of self-regulation
  •  Using substances (marijuana, liquor etc.) alone and excessively
  •  Refusing to take responsibility for their actions
  •  Blaming others for their mistakes
  •  Inconsistent or poor grades
  •  History of anxiety or self-esteem issues
  •  Perfectionism
  •  Easily stressed or upset
  •  History of mental illness or mental health issues
  •  Doesn’t like working or learning outside of their own comfort zone
  •  Low or no stress tolerance
  •  Entitled or narcissistic attitude
  •  Attentional or executive functioning challenges
  •  Social skill deficits/social isolation
  •  Can’t hold a steady job
  •  Continues to want to live with parents or family who can take care of them
  •  Tried to launch (college, employment) but failed
  •  Financial dependency
  •  Gaming addiction
  •  Resistance or refusal of help
  •  Lack of insight into their behavior
  •  Poor problem-solving skills
  •  History of academic or social difficulties in high school
  •  Fear of failure
  •  Trauma

This syndrome is not simple. Failure to launch is when the young adults have no way to move forward in life successfully. This can take the form of high unemployment, high economic or continued embattled situations that curtail opportunities for them to move forward through the steps into vocations, school, their own homes, and life relationships.

There are a multitude of different scenarios that can lead to failure to launch in a teen or young adult. As a licensed therapist and a life coach, I have worked with all three levels of concern around this issue. I have found that the best first step is to have the young adult move out of their comfortable situation at home and participate in transitional living at a gap program, IOP or residential center where they can get daily help building life skills, healthy coping skills and inspiration to move forward toward their goals.

Level 1

In the lower range of this syndrome, young adults can feel unprepared to function in a more mature arena of life. They are generally highly sensitive to things that don’t bother a less sensitive individual.

They may feel that they lack the skills to be successful and so refuse to try, holding onto their teenage behaviors.  These behaviors are often tolerated by their originating family during their childhood and continuing into their teen years. The pattern becomes habitual and often some sort of intervention is needed.

Finding a therapist or other forms of counseling are a good first step.  Even weekly or bi-weekly sessions may not be enough to create new patterns and it is easy to slide back into old behaviors in the home atmosphere where the patterns were created.

The next step is to find a program that can address these lower-level deficiencies and help the young adult to learn the skills needed to move forward more successfully.

Gap year programs are a good option as this is a normal and common thing for a young adult to do after high school or even as a break if college is overwhelming. It is good to get out of the home and into a program with lots of structure and a community of other young adults, so the work of building experience and skills can have enough fun to be engaging.

Level 2

The middle range of this syndrome includes more intense, varied symptoms and begins to move into unhealthy coping mechanisms. It often includes some type of more pronounced mental health issue, which may not have been looked at previously, but which escalates the symptoms when the young adult is asked to adapt or change to new expectations.

Some of these mental health issues include:

  •  Trauma or PTSD
  •  Social anxiety
  •  GAD (generalized anxiety disorder)
  •  Stress
  •  Depression
  •  Perfectionism
  •  OCD
  •  Oppositional defiant disorder
  •  Autism
  •  High sensitivity
  •  Entitled attitude
  •  Attentional or executive functioning challenges
  •  History of mental illness or mental health issues
  •  Excessive marijuana usage
  •  Gaming addiction

These are a more serious level of concern and with these or other mental health challenges, a middle ground intensive outpatient program that can work with the variety of issues presented along with the failure to launch syndrome is recommended.

Normally an intensive outpatient program is just that, a program where you do not stay on site after sessions, but again for the failure to launch syndrome issue, we do recommend a program that has transitional living so that young adults are moved out of their home environment during this therapy transition.

Level 3

The highest range of the failure to launch syndrome can include all of the previous information but has one or more significant mental health issues that is impacting the young adults ability in a way that they cannot navigate without a full team of residential extended care professionals working with them to help them through it successfully. The different mental health diagnosis that can impact a client to this level are:

  • Mood Disorders – Depression-bipolar disorders
  •  Complicated Grief
  •  Anxiety Disorders, OCD, Social Anxiety, Panic Disorders
  •  Trauma Disorders – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  •  Dissociative Disorders, Childhood Trauma
  •  Personality Disorders – Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Histrionic Personality Disorder, Dependent Personality Disorder.
  •  Suicidal Ideation

The partial hospital or residential level of care includes psychiatric and counseling therapy 5 to 6 hours a day, five to seven days a week. Clients live onsite in a highly structured but supportive program that helps them move forward more successfully. Three-to-six-months is often required for a successful outcome.



Failure to Launch Guiding Clinicians to Successfully Motivate the Long-Dependent Young Adult, Michael D. Devine, MS, LPC-S

Smart but Scattered and Stalled – 10 Steps to help young adults use their executive skills to set goals, make a plan, and successfully leave the nest. Richard Guare, PhD, Colin Guare, MS, Peg Dawson, EdD

This One Wild and Precious Life: The Path Back to Connection in a Fractured World, Sarah Wilson
Population Europe Population & Policy Compact Failure to Launch Economic crisis leads to demographic crisis for the young. Aasve, Arnstein (2013)

Italy’s Failure to Launch: Country’s youth face high unemployment. https://www.


Failure to Launch, Failure to Achieve Criteria for Adulthood? Evie Kins, Wim Beyers Published May 21, 2010 Research Article

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