The Road More or Less Travelled
“A foot and lighthearted I take to the open road
Healthy, free, the world before me
Which for the time being – is my parents’ basement.
For the first time in more than 130 years, Americans, ages 18-34 are choosing an alternative living situation. And out of the crowded field of choices – life with Mom and/or Dad has become the top pick for millennials – particularly men. That’s more than 1 in 5 young adults, according to a recent report from real estate hub Zillow. And of the 14.1 percent of 24 to 34-year-olds living at home and whom remained unemployed as of 2016, about 55 percent were male.
While not a sequel to the popular Matthew McConaughey movie, or a true diagnostic category – yet, “Failure to Launch Syndrome,” Failure to Thrive,” or the “Boomerang Generation,” describes young adults who are unwilling or unable to navigate a smooth glide path and fully transition from dependence to independence. Lacking the developmental skills others of their generation seem to have adopted more naturally, this group when faced with adversity, opted for an about face. They returned home, inspired tension and guilt among family members who wonder and worry when their child will “pull it together,” and what if anything they can do to fast-track the process?
Granted the changing face of the economy, a shrinking job market, burgeoning college debt – for those who did graduate, has significantly impacted the prospects for young adults to experience the same level of financial independence their parents and generations before them experienced. But – least we assume these are the only critical dynamics at play in millennials’ reluctance to strike out and support themselves. It’s not. Whatever the reason and backstory, the majority of these young people are overwhelmed and ill-equipped to deal with the challenges and demands of college and later on in the workforce.
What differentiates these young people from their peers who’ve made more successful transitions? Good question.
With ample theories and theorists focused on this at-risk population, one theory supports the era of entitlement and instant gratification has impeded what therapists’ call “frustration tolerance.” This is how we handle upsetting situations, tolerate ambiguity, and learn to navigate the circumstances and natural consequences of breakups, poor grades, setbacks and normal life stuff. If a young person is not tasked to cultivate the spirit of reliance in the face of adversity during adolescence, it’s unlikely they’re going to naturally cobble this skill set together once in adulthood.
There can also be underlying learning and/or attention challenges that don’t have a significant impact on a student’s functioning until they leave home and enter college where the demands of organization, time management and independent study are required to grasp larger and more complex material.
Factor in well-intentioned parents who’ve grown accustomed to playing the role of academic advocate and project manager, providing the scaffolding throughout their children’s secondary and post-secondary education. And unless a parent plans on moving into the dorm room across the hall, once at college and left to their own devises, these young people are ill-equipped to make the necessary adjustments and strike that critical balance of self-sufficiency apart from the family’s gravitational force field.
So how do we as parents, mental health professionals and coaches, effectively encourage young adults to establish realistic goals, cultivate greater self-reliance, and a meaningful vision for their future?
Here are just a few things to ponder:
- Engage in an honest and constructive dialogue about realistic expectations and boundaries with your adult child – (God forbid children) about what you’re willing and unwilling to do to support them during this transitional period. Think about incorporating creative problem solving known as “Question Storming.” A branch of brainstorming where you and your adult child identify a series of questions in rapid succession without discussion or judgment. The biggest difference between brainstorming and Q Storming is the emphasis on questions, not ideas. There are any number of ways to view a problem, and identifying the right problem is often the first step toward creative solutions.
- Help separate long-range from moderate and short-term, measurable goals, with consistent action, and timelines associated with the fulfillment of the agreed upon goals. Identify why the goal is meaningful to your young adult? Otherwise, the motivation and path forward will be hollow and unsustainable. Q Storm around how best to motivate the young adult to continue working toward the fulfillment of the goal and the natural consequences associated with him/her not living up to their agreements.
- Psychotherapy may be an option, and seeking a psychiatrist for medication management could be helpful in the management of depression and anxiety. Discourage/disallow substance use, which can exacerbate depression and anxiety symptoms.
- Reinforce the value of ongoing, nonjudgmental inquiry; observing what’s working in their plan as well as opportunities for revision. Keeping a log of incremental successes is very powerful and self-affirming. Small successes eventually lead to larger successes!
Perhaps it’s also worth considering a broader definition of success and the circuitous pathway toward maturity. A one size fits all – it’s not. Only when we build the capacity of self-respect and self-management in our young people, demonstrate faith, patience and confidence in their ability to “get it” in their own, unique way – in their own, unique time, handle the demands of adulthood with nimbleness, accountability, and creative problem solving skills, will they eventually find a place to reside and thrive in their own skin. And after all, isn’t that the ultimate definition of success and our wish for all young people?