Launches that fail or fizzle

While the phrase “failure to launch” might be recent in origin, the phenomenon of young people who are stalled on the path to accepting adulthood is nothing new. In this clip from decades past, watch how one mother handled her son’s (literal) failure to launch:

We can laugh, but when launches fail (or the craft takes an unexpectedly long time to reach the target) there’s pain, fear, frustration, and confusion for parents as well as young adults. Climbing the Cinder Cone is really all about find ways to avoid, shorten, or soften the “FTL” period for our atypical young people. It’s time to take a look at the situation that gives us so much grief.

First, what is the ultimate destination for the “rocket” being launched? Some say it’s to lead a balanced life with passion and joy. Another source says adulthood is achieved when a person looks to himself/herself for solutions; is financially self-sufficient; and gives the family support (instead of only receiving support from the family). The mature adult may not actually do everything that’s needed, but will make sure that somehow things are taken care of – instead of relying on others to do the worrying and arranging.

Launch problems can take on a variety of forms. Junior may flat-out refuse to get off the couch, period. Or, parents may see attempts (made with varying degrees of determination, with varying degrees of success) to complete classes or to find or hold jobs. Sometimes accidentally-on-purpose self-sabotage might come into play. A pattern our family knows very well is when the young adult zigzags from one goal to another before achieving any of them.

A big part of the problem is that launching requires several attributes that our kiddos tend to have in short supply: persistence, resilience, inner motivation, belief in one’s ability to succeed, and willingness to be independent as well as interdependent. These deficits may be innate or may result from repeated struggles in school, hassle at home, and difficulties in social settings.

Issues stemming from these deficits include procrastination, lack of drive, a pattern of avoiding challenges, and an unwillingness to delay gratification. Sometimes an inability to control anger is thrown in.

These attitude challenges occur on top of functional deficits in sensory processing, attention, organization, memory, social skills, and/or mental health. Filling out applications, taking a class, learning a job: they’re all difficult enough even for a person without such deficits! And now the young people are expected to tackle these daunting tasks with much lower levels of support than they had in the more structured world of high school. Not a recipe for a flawless transition.

As Dr. Rick Silver of THRIVE points out in this article, individuals with ADHD typically have a 3-5 year lag in reaching key developmental milestones. If ADHD is in the picture, the launch process may start later, take longer, and follow a trajectory with more loops and dead ends than we thought we would tolerate.

In this article, Dr. Robert Fischer at Optimum Performance Institute (OPI) shows us that in order to launch successfully, a rocket needs:

  • Fuel – in this case, energy and desire enough to overcome the “gravity” of fears and negative thinking that hold the rocket on the launch pad.
  • Liftoff – this is action! That rocket has to do something to overcome the pull of habit and avoidance.
  • The rocket – the young adult has to be sturdy enough in body, mind and spirit to get from the launch pad to the target.
  • Navigation – this includes aids to achieving the target, like getting help to stay on course.
  • Refueling – similar to navigation, refueling takes place after the initial launch and helps sustain motivation, build internal momentum, and enable perseverance through ups and downs.

If these elements aren’t in place, our “rocket” isn’t going very far.

Of course, transition programs like THRIVE/Heron’s Gate, OPI, and the ones on the Resources page are all about having an expert team support the launch.

In families that don’t access such programs, parents often end up providing partial or total support for months or years beyond what was expected. Is that the right thing to do?

Opinions vary. One counselor put it to me this way:

If you’re giving help, but

the help isn’t being used in the way you intended;

progress toward the goal is minimal;

the help is being taken for granted; and

you end up resentful and negatively impacted;

then you’re not “helping” the situation, you’re HURTING it.

It’a a balancing act for parents, to be sure: a balance between holding on and letting go, a trick in recognizing when support is really needed and when it isn’t. Join the club if you’re having trouble finding the sweet spot!

While searching for that balance, consider these suggestions from Dr. Silver and others:

  • Let the young adult connect with his or her own gifts, strengths, and passions (unless they involve criminal activity)! Encourage him or her to experience mastery.
  • Avoid insisting on a path that doesn’t suit the individual.
  • Emphasize the possibilities (positives) of adulthood, rather than hammering on the boring, scary responsibilities.
  • Get a diagnostic workup for the young adult. A thorough neuropsychological evaluation will help identify the troublesome deficits and point to the most effective treatments.
  • Allow an executive functioning coach or other mental health professionals to do a portion of the guiding.
  • Encourage good self care.
  • Don’t feed a sense of entitlement. Be clear on what you will or won’t do. Establish consequences, and be firm in enforcing them.
  • Celebrate the small successes, and be patient with the frustrating setbacks.
  • Be realistic about the timeline: it’s likely to take months or years.

Going back to the video clip, we can watch some of these suggestions put into practice. Mama Buzzard sees her son’s reluctance to go and bring home a large animal for dinner and revises her expectation to something “Killer” is more likely to achieve: bringing home a “rrrabbit.” Then she makes sure he leaves the nest! (In my more impatient moods, I am totally ready to copy her technique.) Notice also how Killer goes at his own pace once he leaves the nest – probably not flying nearly as fast as other young buzzards his age. But he’s going.

Our family has had its share of small successes and big missteps in the launch process. It’s been bumpy, and it may not be over, but at least now we’re seeing more forward momentum. I wish all of you at “Mission Control” an ultimately successful flight path!


Other sources:


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About janet565

I've lived in the Inland Empire of Southern California since 1982. My profession involves maps and geography. I hope you find the blog useful, and wish you well....

3 responses to “Launches that fail or fizzle”

  1. teachezwell says :

    You raise so many critical points in this post. It’s a complex issue like you said, with many potential detours along the way.


  2. teachezwell says :

    Reblogged this on Teachezwell Blog and commented:
    Janet raises some critical issues about launching into adulthood for special needs individuals. She includes links to some helpful resources for parents. Check it out!


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