Tackling ‘Failure to Launch’ Syndrome at the Source

group of friends

Contributor: Staff at The Camp Recovery Center

From early childhood to junior high and high school years, there can be a lot of tumultuous times physically, mentally, and emotionally on the path to adulthood. Perhaps no time is more psychologically challenging than the years immediately after high school when many people either attend college or enter the workforce. It’s not surprising that rates of substance use disorders are higher among the ages 18-25 demographic than any other age range.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than 1 in 10 young adults (ages 18-25) in 2018 had alcohol use disorder in the previous year [1]. That’s more than double the rate for adults age 26 and older.

It’s easy to see why that’s a time when a person could be particularly susceptible to excessive use of alcohol or other drugs. Many young people are attempting to transition from living off Mom and Dad to deciding what they want to do with the rest of their life.

It’s a leap some don’t make at all.

Why some people’s emotional growth remains stunted and affects one’s failure to launch

Some in the United States call it Peter Pan syndrome based on the concept of not growing up and being trapped in childhood. The more common term is failure to launch syndrome.

Call The Camp Recovery Center for Help 831-269-5578

The goal in most Western civilizations is for parents to nurture their children up to the point when they can be self-sufficient. But while some young adults are pursuing higher education or finding full-time jobs, others continue to stay at home without seeking a job or contributing financially.

Nearly all failure to launch cases involve young men. In 2014, more than 7 million American men ages 25-54 were neither working nor looking for work, a 25% increase from a decade earlier [2].

So, what contributes to this phenomenon for these so-called Peter Pans? It’s complicated. Some blame the economy and the job market.

Others point to the ever-rising costs of college and an inability to pay off that debt with entry-level jobs. Still, others lay the blame at the feet of overprotective parents who don’t provide their children with the necessary skills to become independent.

Whatever the case may be, failure to launch is a legitimate concern. And along with the apathy and frustration that often come with it, finding solace in substances is a frequent companion.

Treating failure to launch syndrome at the family level

Because failure to launch syndrome is not an official clinical diagnosis and doesn’t exist in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), it’s not something you’ll find connected with a bevy of statistics emphasizing its presence as a mental health concern.

But what we already know about addiction is that it most frequently affects the same demographic group that is the exact age range for those who struggle with failure to launch.

Eli Lebowitz, Ph.D., an associate professor at Yale University’s Child Study Center, has helped launch a parent-only therapy for those whose adult children remain highly dependent on them [3]. While the program focuses largely on how to handle the mental health ramifications of failure to launch rather than possible substance abuse, it can also serve as a lesson for helping to intervene and cut off any addiction concerns before they may surface.

Many young people who aren’t participating in society may refuse to seek help for either a mental health concern or an addiction. Of the more than 20 million people nationwide who are living with a substance use disorder, only about 10% receive treatment. The numbers are similar for those who are struggling with mental illness [4].

Lebowitz’s therapeutic angle is a product of research that focused on self-change in the parents rather than the dependent adult children. He and his colleagues worked with the parents of 27 adults who were considered “failures to launch” [5].

Girl working on PC avoiding the Failure to LaunchParents were trained to decrease the accommodations they provided and empathically acknowledge the genuine difficulty and distress of the dependent adult. Lebowitz wanted the failure to launch syndrome to be treated as a process, not a failure.

The parents in the study focused on modifying their own behavior instead of providing threats — and trusting their child’s capacity to grow. The results? After treatment, the dependent adult children made significant gains in employment, social behavior, living arrangements, and other forms of engagement with the adult world.

What a parent can do to address the failure to launch

Before any parent can begin to focus on shifting their own behaviors and attitudes to help an overly dependent adult child, they need to lay some important groundwork.

Among the questions they should consider are:

  • Does my child have symptoms of any mental health concerns that may be contributing to their dependence?
  • Does my child have access to alcohol or other drugs that may be preventing them from progressing toward a life filled with accountability and responsibility?

From there, they can begin to do the work necessary to pull back on accommodating their children and letting them grow independently.

With the proper approach, they can provide the foundation for young adults who were once considered “failures to launch” to propel themselves toward a life that is free of substance use and full of hope and opportunity.


[1] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (n.d.). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/cbhsq-reports/NSDUHNationalFindingsReport2018/NSDUHNationalFindingsReport2018.pdf.

[2] Hendriksen, E. (2019, May 18). Failure to launch syndrome. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/failure-to-launch-syndrome/.

[3] Katz, M. (April 2018). Failure to launch: Treating it as a process, not a failure. Promising Practices. https://chadd.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Promising_Practices.pdf.

[4] O’Reilly, K. (2019, Oct. 22). 90% who need substance-use disorder treatment don’t get it. American Medical Association. https://www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/opioids/90-who-need-substance-use-disorder-treatment-don-t-get-it.

[5] Lebowitz, E.R. (2017). Family impairment associated with childhood obsessive-compulsive disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 56(3), 187-188. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2017.01.002.

About Our Sponsor:

The Camp Recovery Center Logo - 1500x455Since 1984, The Camp Recovery Center has been committed to providing clinically excellent residential treatment for adolescents and adults who are struggling with addiction and co-occurring mental health conditions. The campus is situated on 25 acres among the redwoods in Scotts Valley, California, providing a peaceful place of self-reflection that allows for the changes needed to achieve lasting recovery. Today, The Camp Recovery Center is nationally recognized, with treatment options expanding to include a partial hospitalization program and an intensive outpatient program.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on December 7, 2021
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on December 7, 2021
Published on AddictionHope.com

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.