Identifying & Treating Failure-to-Launch or Emerging Adulthood

Posted by Mayer Jeppson, Ph.D., Therapist at Entrada on July 14, 2017

1mayer resizedIn an effort to meet clients with compassion and understanding, the mental health industry has made a shift and replaced the often negatively referred to term, Failure-to-Launch, with a more empathetic term, Emerging Adulthood.

Of the varied issues that may prompt parents or individuals to seek out wilderness therapy as a vehicle for change, over the years the contemporary, non-diagnostic, “failure-to-launch” or "emerging adulthood" has been oft-referenced on submitted applications for wilderness treatment. A person identified as failure-to-launch or emerging adulthood may be the young man or woman who has demonstrated little to no motivation to advance through life in a positive fashion. They may appear to lack or misapply tools that foster independence. They may foster regular, if not constant, disruption with parents and family and the parent’s attentional focus and financial support are often incontrovertibly overburdened. Sequelae of this presentation could include various mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and addiction issues tied to substances or digital mediums. Whereas addiction may not be the case with some individuals with this presentation, regular misuse or overuse of substances or digital mediums may still cause problems. In any case, the individual who struggles with an emerging adulthood presentation tends to usually experience distressing and troublesome dynamics that tend to similarly affect those close to them.

One troublesome dynamic that often leads to emerging adulthood includes lying. Many times, the lies include both big and small matters. Big lies may carry on for months and tend to have larger financial strains attached, such as the lie that college courses are “going fine” when at the end of the semester class related coursework was never turned in and tests were never attended. Smaller lies, such as, “I will take the dishes out of my room” can have grievous consequences when insects find the stash they decided was easier to stuff under the bed than bring downstairs to the kitchen. Certain of the lies may seem to have no apparent gain, such as the story about the friend they hung out and had lunch with three days previous. Lies such as these may on the surface be about avoidance of responsibility, accountability, or work. They also may be about a level of compromised self-worth and fear of being exposed and shamed for lack of ability. Oftentimes, parents clearly see the most entrenched and problematic lies are the ones this individual continues to tell themselves and unfortunately holds onto with clenched fists. In any case, eroded trust through lies is regularly an attribute of emerging adulthood.

Avoidance of responsibility likely coupled with an underlying sense of inadequacy tends to be another common attribute of emerging adulthood. What is seen by parents is that this adolescent or young adult finds every excuse, whether logical or illogical, as to why they cannot begin or continue to work at and complete tasks. This often looks like months long circular struggles and arguments tied to completion of job applications, lack of pursuit of a job or for interviews, and rationalizations as to why job “x” is wrong or why company “y” would not be a god fit for them. This can also look like, among other things, a garage full of minimally-engaged projects and infomercial gear that was meant to motivate; a continually messy room(s); personal hygiene degradation; weight gain; and/or isolation from loved ones. Individuals stuck in this cycle may attempt to solely focus on those concentrated areas where they can be “exceptional” or “really good,” where they are more often guaranteed reward and confirmation of their caliber. In this way, avoidance of other tasks and experiences tend to be vigilant protection for their fragile ego. When avoidance and the underlying sense of inadequacy become more pervasive, formal anxiety issues and in more severe cases, moderate to severe depression may be present.


When looking at this individual from a different angle, they could appear to be a master planner and/or a specialized tactician. Regularly, they find ways to keep their parents from more firm boundaries which have likely required a great deal of mental energy, creative contemplation, and a knowledge base of what parental strings to pull and buttons to push. Frequently, they make the world adjust as a means to stay in a greater perceived state of ease and comfort with the parent provided amenities, where again, the layered intricacies of such could be logarithmic. Their current life could boil down to days-on-end of video games, pornography, streaming video, cannabis use, overeating, unhealthy eating, and the circadian rhythms of a rock star. Such a lifestyle for however long requires a savvy mind to make it happen.

When looking at this individual from our contemporary socialized western culture, they appear to show, among other things, executive-function deficits; lack of motivation towards healthy ends; fear of reprisal; fear of being exposed as less-than-exceptional; endless excuses for struggles and failures; fear and avoidance of adult responsibilities; limited insight; struggles to delay or deny gratification; avoidance or refusal of flexibility when challenged with something; and communication problems. What many parents would likely look for is to have their emerging adulthood individual move into a varied design of how a responsible adult can be defined. This could include being interpersonally successful in extra-familial relationships (i.e. could be with a significant other and peers), responsible with their peers at work, accountable in their personal life (i.e. relationship with siblings and parents), Intra-personally (the experience within the person), this could look like said individual having some awareness of their own thoughts, feelings, and the link between thoughts and feelings. Further, this could look like the appropriate management of such thoughts and feelings with integrity, and being successful in the creation, preparation for, and execution of plans in a responsible, and accountable manner, across settings.

When the individual whose admission application notes "emerging adulthood", transitions out of wilderness therapy, all of their issues will not be cured. Therapy tends to be more about process and growth as opposed to cure. Through wilderness therapy they will have been exposed to, and engaged in concentrated healthy interpersonal dynamics with daily super-ordinate (group-based) tasks where they are required to complete necessary chores so that their day and the group of peers can progress (working effectively with others). Intra-personally, they will have established and executed goals, fostered insight, faced physical, emotional and mental challenges which allow growth and meaning, and more than likely found clearer tangible/metaphorical/emotional/behavioral rewards through journey-based experiences. This individual will have all the more channeled resiliency, emotional awareness, accountability, inhibition, initiative, flexibility and perseverance on such a scale in the eight-or-so weeks in wilderness therapy, such that their platform for a successful launch is exceptionally better primed.


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