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Adult children still at home? How parents can help kids who ‘fail to launch’

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At 50 years old, my husband and I expected to be occasionally bouncing grandchildren on our knees and enjoying a house full of empty-nest silence. We raised our four children to adulthood — two boys, two girls. They now range in age from 20 to 28. Both of our sons served church missions. Two of our children are college graduates and one of them just graduated from law school. The younger two are still working on degrees. We have four successful children and we could not be prouder.  

What’s the catch? Three of them still live at home and the fourth just moved out this past summer when she got married. Pass the Excedrin for a few migraines!  

This situation, quite common in today’s world, has been referred to as “failure to launch,” a term coined for young adults who fail to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood. In 1995, Dr. Jeffrey Arnett developed the term “emerging adults” to describe this interim period for young adults, ages 18-25, who do not yet consider themselves “adults.” These emerging adults are trying to find their place in life — and are thus often focused on their own trajectory — getting an education, establishing a career, enjoying a good social life. Trends show they stay in their parents’ homes longer and may not be as committed to moving on to marriage or to claiming their own permanent address in the same way that many former generations did.

Contributing factors may include overprotective parenting, changes in expected age for marriage over recent years and fear of rejection. Maybe some consider it better to stay home where the rent is free, mom cooks dinner and the washing machine does not require quarters.  

In any case, millennials are charting their own paths, much to the consternation of their parents who remembered a different path to success. As Dr. Larry Nelson, professor in BYU’s School of Family Life, states: “Parents are saying, ‘just do what I did,’ and it just doesn’t work. It’s too different.” What to do? 

When the “launch” is not happening and it’s in the best interest of the young adult to move on, parents can consider the following ideas. But don’t set up the conditions right away, since failure to launch is a syndrome that applies only after a long duration of dependency without notable progress or motivation.  

  • Accountability. Consider their level of accountability for the goods and services they are currently receiving. Bare minimum, they should be helping around the house; the opportunity to contribute builds both skills and dignity.  
  • Employment and education. Having a parent provide the necessities of life at no cost is not “real life.” Life costs money and their efforts to earn, save, and contribute brings them closer to enjoying the satisfaction of self-reliance. Encourage their forward progress in gaining satisfying employment and completing their schooling — it’s one of the best ways to help them secure a better future. 
Parents can provide emotional support by having realistic expectations, patience and a listening ear.

  • Emotional support. As emerging adults strive to reach various milestones in their lives, they may need extra support for a while. Parents can provide emotional support by having realistic expectations, patience and a listening ear. At times, their lack of progress may also uncover difficulties they may be having with diminished self-esteem or poor emotional self-regulation. Noting these concerns may prompt a parent to action, through respectful and direct conversations or by discussing the possibility of seeking professional help for a mental health condition. 

So perhaps my desire to change the locks can be put on hold while my oldest son prepares to move to Arizona to clerk for a court of appeals, while my second son completes his degree at Brigham Young University while working 40 hours a week at a student internship with the football team, and while my youngest daughter attends cosmetology school for seven hours daily. Giving them a little slack for forward progress is important if they realize they are guests in our home and respect it as such.  

The day will soon come when they are gone, and grandchildren will come for us to bounce on our knees. I hope.  

Suzanne Clark is currently a senior at BYU majoring in family studies and is married to Steve Clark. Together they have four children and a son-in-law, all of which they are so very proud of. You can follow her on Instagram @hopetomoveforward.