Navigating the path to independence in young adults

By Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D.

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 who are concerned about their adult children’s inability to mature and become independent. These parents frequently ask, “What did we do wrong?” or “How did we get here?” There can be multiple factors that 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 failure to launch.

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

 Emotional and Social Immaturity: Some young adults struggle to form meaningful relationships, manage their 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 into the next stage of life.

By understanding the underlying causes to 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 through a combination of creating structure, developing a roadmap for increased autonomy, and seeking professional help when necessary.

Creating Structure Toward Positive Growth: Establishing a structured environment can provide the stability and routine that young adults need 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 and 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 child’s responsibilities, by encouraging them to take on more challenging tasks, and by providing support as they navigate new experiences. 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 to create a plan; perhaps they could start out with a class or two at community college where they can eventually accumulate enough credits to transfer to a four year college. 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 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 providing guidance to parents on how to best support their young adult child’s development, as well as 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 in relation to 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 are able to more openly express their concerns and needs, it can ease the way for young adults to begin to develop more effective solutions in their journey toward independence.

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

Mother and Daughter
Father and Son
Father and Son
Mother and Daughter

Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D. “Dr. Mike” is a clinical psychologist in private practice.
He can be reached at 703-723-2999, and is located at 44095 Pipeline Plaza, Suite 240, Ashburn