Failure to Launch: An Outdated Term Needing a Makeover

June 26, 2024

There are a myriad of reasons as to why young adults struggle to function in age expected ways. The realms are vast, ranging from academic and vocational to that of self-care and interpersonal relationships with family, friends,and intimate partners. Sometimes these challenges are experienced across the board while other times they are more isolated to specific areas. The inability to effectively engage in these types of life demands as young adults, typically in multiple arenas, is sometimes referred to as failure to launch.  


The time has come to reconsider the appropriateness of the term and how it may in fact be problematic. The term failure is so loaded. It immediately creates a perception of inadequacy, badness, and perhaps wrong doing. Oftentimes those struggling already exist with a higher degree of shame or feeling of deficiency. Such a label can exacerbate these experiences and unnecessarily further inhibit one’s ability to invest in themselves and make needed change. 


Another reason failure is an unfortunate term is due to its lack of accuracy. Struggling is not synonymous with failure. When individuals struggle to achieve their goals or fit into their lives as they or others imagined, it’s not a failure. Rather, struggle and withdrawal can be better understood as part of a chain of events where such an experience may be necessary for change. For example, as human beings we need meaning in life in order to feel connected to it. When this is absent, our motivation can change and we tend to withdraw our efforts until meaning can be restored. 


The term failure to launch often tends to be associated more with those experiencing established mental health issues, learning differences, and/or social skills challenges that have yet to be overcome or managed. For these individuals many life demands provoke feelings of doubt and inadequacy. This can then build into quite powerful reactions where one tends to engage in fight, flight, or freeze responses. Avoidance or intentionally working against achieving goals in one’s life proves safer than attempting and not reaching them at all. This cycle feeds itself and leads to what has been referred to as failure to launch.


Why should this term be retired?

Simply put it’s just not that sophisticated. As stated, avoiding one’s life demands and goals in these cases have much to do with what has been referred to as learned helplessness. Once individuals find meaning and/or better manage their mental health, academic, and/or interpersonal challenges, they quite naturally find ways to engage in their lives and take the necessary risks whereby they can launch or thrive. 


How can we help stuck young adults?

There really is no one answer as everyone is quite unique and at different stages of stuckness. That said, we can start with considering this fight, flight, and/or freeze response by normalizing it. Through identifying this experience we can help those individuals take a deeper look at what is behind their struggle to engage and pursue life goals. This can be facilitated by speaking with a parent, friend or coach as well as professionals such as psychotherapists, coaches, and psychiatrists. The use of psychiatric medications might also be worth evaluating. Often a combination of talk therapy and medication can be most helpful. For some, neuropsychological evaluations are helpful in identifying both mental health and cognitive functioning. This added information can prove essential at times for those presenting with more complexity and when the route of one’s challenges are unclear.


Ultimately, it could be beneficial to not only retire the term “Failure to Launch”, but to change the narrative of the sentiments behind the term itself. When challenges and barriers present themselves one tends to focus on the impact and negative implications of the challenge. While this is understandable, it is also shortsighted, and overlooks the opportunity for growth that any challenge presents us. Our modern lives offer overwhelming options, creating fertile grounds for complications and indecision. 


It’s no wonder that more and more people find themselves struggling to find direction as the paths to socially accepted success become more complex. Just as there is an opportunity to find the growth potential in any challenge, there is an opportunity to bestow grace upon those that face those challenges and recognize the fact that those that find their way through the barriers that life presents model qualities that everyone would benefit from having.


Written by Dr. Joshua Altschule, with contributions by Seth Dolinsky