Failure To Launch Young Adults

In the mental health and addiction treatment realm, the term “Failure to Launch” is often used to describe people who struggle to individuate during the transition into adulthood. At Recovery Fusion, we prefer using empowering language; thus, we use the phrase  “Launch to Success” to describe these individuals. Nonetheless, parents often feel concern and frustration when their child seems unable to gain self-sufficiency. 

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In order to flourish as an independent young adult, the individual needs to have developed intrinsic motivation, self confidence, and determination to set and achieve goals. Nowadays, it is quite common for the young person to seek the inherent need for connection through superficial technological means. As author and psychologist Dr. David Verhaagen put it, “this process of constantly seeking validation may result in a sense of internal ‘vagueness,’ making it harder to identify any true interests or passions because of separation fears and insufficient experience in developing a resiliency to the realities of life. The end result is a young adult frightened by the process of becoming self-sufficient which, like life itself, they know requires years of perseverance with no guarantees”.

This dilemma, coupled with the newfound responsibilities and external pressures that come with adulthood, leads many to turn to drugs, alcohol, video games, or other avoidant behaviors as a means to escape. In turn, the parents may feel overwhelmed and begin to helicopter over their child. In more extreme cases, they may even send their child away to a behavioral modification program of some sort, such as a residential home, rehabilitation center, or wilderness program, in an effort to get them back on track.

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During this process, the child may be labeled an “addict” or given some sort of disempowering mental health diagnoses, despite the fact that the root of the problem may have been as simple as underdeveloped maturity, which is treated more effectively through meaningful experiences and a sense of purpose than through a rehab. Furthermore, these institutions often convince the family of the fatalist view that “once and addict, always an addict”, regardless of whether or not addiction was even the root cause of the individual’s “failure to launch”.


If the “addict” label is engrained in the individual’s psyche, it may become a part of their identity, thereby leading them to subconsciously to conform to it. This becomes a vicious cycle of disempowerment, whereby the resentful individual is treated like a delinquent and therefore acts as such.

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We acknowledge that treatment is a necessary step for many recovering individuals; however, we also recognize that treatment centers often fail to distinguish those with legitimate addiction problems and those who fall under the category of “Failure to Launch”.

The “Failure to Launch” individual needs someone to empower and advocate for them. Recovery support specialists, also known as recovery coaches, work with these situations by coaching both the individual and family, and teaching the individual how to navigate their resources while building a meaningful life of passion and purpose. At Recovery Fusion, our recovery support specialists work in tandem with licensed professionals to help unwind the family system and apply therapeutic findings to their day-to-day life. Each individual’s treatment plan is customized to fit their needs and strengths, as we acknowledge that recovery is not a one-size-fits-all process.

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We interviewed a previous client’s mother, who’s daughter—Sarah—fell under the “Launch To Success” category. Feel free to read about the experience from a mother’s perspective.

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How old was Sarah when she started acting out and can you describe her behaviors?

“At the age of about 15, Sarah began acting angry, obstinate, impatient, and resentful. She had sporadic mood swings, refused to participate in family events, and was unpleasant to her siblings. She also began to struggle with food, and was eventually diagnosed with anorexia.”

What did you attribute this behavior to?

“I initially attributed these behaviors to puberty. It was her first year of high school and I knew that she struggled with transitions and fitting into a peer group. I was also newly married to her and struggling with alcohol abuse—two factors that I believe contributed to Sarah’s stress. In hindsight, her behaviors seemed to place her in the “Failure To Launch/Launch To Success” category.”

How were you feeling during this time?

“I was very worried and confused about her behavior. I could not figure it out; and at the time, I did not connect the dots as to how much of it was related to my own actions that were causing her pain.”

What measures did you take with Sarah to try to help her get back on track? What professionals did you talk to in order to make this decision?

“I contacted her pediatrician who recommended a nutritional counselor so we started taking her there. I contacted her therapist about our concerns and brought her to a psychiatrist to discuss prescription options.  I tried to help her with food intake and her dad and I gave her some ultimatums (i.e. gain weight if you want to continue on the dance team). I spoke with her dance team coach about my concerns and asked for her thoughts on what to do. When Sarah asked to move in full time with her dad, I was hesitant but agreed, hoping that maybe if she didn’t live with me, she would feel better.  She moved in with him in May and by January, her dad was reaching out to me saying he could not deal with her full time and wanted her to come back to our house part time.  We were both at our wits end with no idea what to do. In late February we hired an educational consultant out of fear that Sarah’s behavior was getting to reckless. She was sneaking out of the house, ignoring curfew rules, and bing-drinking on weekends. One night, Sarah landed herself in the ER with alcohol poisoning. After that, the educational consultant advised us to send Sarah to a wilderness program, where she spent 9 weeks followed by 6 months at a therapeutic boarding school. About 9 months after returning from the boarding school, Sarah ended up in the psych ward due to suicidal ideation. We sent her to a dual-diagnosis rehab in Malibu. Almost year later, Sarah began struggling with drug abuse, and we sent her to a 12-Step rehab in Los Angeles. After 90 days at rehab, Sarah was discharged and we hired Robbin as a recovery support specialist.”

What were the results of sending Sarah to these institutions (wilderness, boarding school, and rehab)?

“I thought that the wilderness gave Sarah a chance to be away from triggers. I hoped that by being away for 9 weeks, she would be ready and willing to make healthier choices and engage in more positive relationships with her family not to mention be less impulsive. She seemed happier, calmer, and looked great at her graduation 9 weeks after going to wilderness.  But we were told that 97% of kids in wilderness go to a second tier program directly after graduating; and unfortunately, the boarding school we chose was terrible. Sarah was traumatized. I think we wasted money, and more importantly, she was caused great harm by spending 6 months in a punitive and dishonest place.  As for rehab, she went a a nice and beautiful place in Malibu that was essentially a waste of $60,000. Sarah received acupuncture and got to play with wolves, but didn’t receive much (if any) long-term help with her struggles. The second rehab Sarah went to was also dual-diagnosis with more of a drug-abuse focus. Her situation was complicated, as she was not physically addicted to drugs, but she was making a lot of reckless decisions that involved drugs, such as trying out Xanax and pain killers. I do not believe Sarah was helped at this rehab. They forced her to go to AA meetings, and offered no other approach to recovery despite the fact that she did not resonate with the label “alcoholic”. The rehab overlooked problems related to impulsivity, the family system, and lack of self esteem, and overemphasized that “addiction was the root of the problem”.  Sarah also became friends with a lot of hard-core drug-users at this rehab, which concerned her father and I.”

When and why did you decide to hire a recovery support specialist (Robbin)?

“We were told while Sarah was at rehab for 90 days that she would need a recovery support specialist afterwards, especially since she was going to be heading directly to college. It sounded like a very logical next-step.”

What were the results of hiring a recovery support specialist? How did this experience differ from that of the traditional rehabs that you dealt with?

“The recovery support specialist (Robbin) took a much more personal approach to Sarah’s recovery. She helped Sarah rediscover her interests, and find other like-minded individuals in the area.  She advocated for my daughter and seemed very creative in her approach. She also helped Sarah find a good psychiatrist and psychologist in the area, and we began doing family therapy together. I learned a lot about my role in Sarah’s struggles through family therapy. Robbin also helped Sarah apply the therapeutic findings between sessions. For example, the therapist advised her to get back into dancing, and Robbin brought her to a few different dance classes.”

How is Sarah doing now?

“For the last 3 years, Sarah has been doing the best she has since she was 14. She’s getting straight A’s in school, has a solid core group of friends, and thrives in her part-time job. She has participated in service trips in other countries, and has reconnected with old friends and made a huge effort to build back trust with relatives, including me.  She seems to be more solid than ever in terms of moving in a direction of emotional maturity and happiness.”

The FamilyRecovery Fusion