She looks like an adult, sounds like an adult and occasionally dresses like an adult. But take a closer look and you’ll see someone who more closely resembles a teenager than a bona fide grown-up. The increasingly common phenomenon of taking the long road to adulthood goes by different names – failure to launch, Peter Pan syndrome, the boomerang generation – but is becoming a pressing concern for many families.
Most young people don’t struggle with the transition into adulthood, and of those that do, there are often understandable – even healthy – reasons for it. Some are busy seizing other opportunities – trying on different jobs and romantic interests to see which fits, traveling, or building job skills at unpaid internships. For these youth, living at home and settling down later makes sense.
The economic downturn has hit young adults hard. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of adult children living with mom and dad increased from 1.2 million to 15.8 million. Those who go to college often have loans to repay, a high cost of living, fierce competition for entry-level jobs and an unemployment rate nearly double the national average. They’re not lazy, in most cases they don’t want to depend on their parents; they’re just struggling to put the pieces together.
It’s also not a personal affront to their parents. Today, everything is happening later. With college enrollment at an all-time high but fewer jobs opportunities, young people are entering the workforce later. Once there, they jump from job to job until they find one that suits them, changing course an average of seven times before reaching 30. The median age for getting married is now 26 for women and 28 for men – about five years later than it was 50 years ago.
Slow and Steady or Going Nowhere Fast?
In contrast to this group of slow but sure adults-in-the-making is a small subgroup of young people for whom living at home isn’t a matter of building a launch pad but a true failure to launch. Directionless and afraid, these perma-teens may remain jobless, dependent and lonely well into their 20s, even 30s and beyond. Substance abuse is common, which amplifies the depression, anxiety and low self-confidence they feel and exacerbates their lack of motivation.
What’s behind this type of failure to launch? It could be the entitlement some kids feel as a result of being told that they can be and have anything they desire. Or perhaps it’s helicopter parents who shield their children from the consequences of their decisions and, consciously or unconsciously, encourage their children to stay under their protective wing even into adulthood.
But there are many other factors that could be involved. For example, some of these young people may have experienced trauma that stalled their emotional development. Others may be struggling with underlying addictions and mental health disorders. Substance abuse peaks between ages 18 and 25, and mental health disorders such as bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and eating disorders typically appear during the late teens or early twenties.
What Parents Can Do to Help
No matter how far off track your young adult has wandered, there are steps you can take to help them find their way:
Assess the Situation. If your young adult is on the road to independence, albeit the scenic route, a little empathy may be in order. College debt, a tight job market, a struggling economy – all are valid reasons why the timetable for growing up is more drawn out than it used to be. Offer encouragement and support when you can, balanced with plenty of opportunities for them to learn from their mistakes.
Stop Enabling. If your young adult isn’t inching toward independence, especially if they’ve gotten derailed by substance abuse, it’s time to set your own plan in motion. Refusing to enable is a good place to start. Unconditional love is a must, but lending money, making excuses for their mistakes and looking the other way when they do wrong – not anymore. Only when your young adult experiences the consequences of their choices will they begin to make better ones.
Set Boundaries. If your living arrangement is satisfactory to both you and your young adult, there’s nothing wrong with continuing to support a young adult, especially in a tough economy. But if your arrangement isn’t mutually acceptable, boundaries need to be drawn. Can your young adult live at home rent-free so long as they’re taking steps toward independence and respecting your limits? Will you pay for their car, cell phone, insurance or other non-necessities? If your young adult is abusing drugs or alcohol, you may decide they can live at home only if they agree to get help.
Consider drawing up a contract – an agreement between adults – that outlines these boundaries. Even when normal worries set in – are they safe, will they ever succeed on their own – hold tight to your boundaries without rescuing or solving their problems for them. These boundaries will help your young adult stay close to you while working toward independence.
Get Help. Nearly seven million young adults ages 18 to 25 need treatment for substance abuse, yet only 5 percent get help. While you can’t solve all of your young adult’s problems, you can offer support, stage an intervention and connect them to the proper resources, such as an addiction treatment program or a self-help support group. You can also improve the family dynamic by getting your own support system in place, which may include a therapist and/or Al-Anon or other support groups.
Encourage Progress. Your young adult’s path may not be a straight line into adulthood. Start with small goals such as buying their own groceries, volunteering or getting a part-time job. Help them maintain a healthy routine by eating nutritious meals, practicing good hygiene and exercising every day. This way, they’re positioned to take advantage of new opportunities when they arise.
In young adulthood, the possibilities for the future abound, as do pressures to succeed. The decisions made during this time can impact the rest of their lives. Unfortunately for some, the many moving parts – education, career, relationships, financial independence – don’t come together seamlessly. Even worse, this stage can be marred by drug use and mental illness. Sometimes our job as parents is to light their path; other times it’s letting them fly. Knowing the difference is one of the many tests of parenthood.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. A sought-after media expert, Dr. Sack has appeared on Dateline NBC, Good Morning America, The Early Show, E! News, The Doctors, and many other outlets. He has also been interviewed and quoted by the major print media, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and Time Magazine.
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Last reviewed: 9 Jun 2014