“Failure to Launch” or “Finding His Way”?

New Perspectives on Young Adulthood


CC Men's Center eNews
Spring, 2013

Many parents these days are struggling with what has been commonly described as the “failure to launch” their young adult sons 18-25 years old. Still living at home, or living back at home after a period of being on their own, the sons seem to lack direction, motivation and skills to find their way in life. How can parents best assist their sons to lead independent lives?


In his excellent book, “Therapy With Young Men: 16-24 Year Olds in Treatment,” author Dave Verhaagen proposes a new stage of psychosocial development for males between 16 and 24. He begins with Erik Erickson’s view of human development which theorized that Adolescence (defined as ages 12-18), during which identify formation is the key developmental task, leads directly into Young Adulthood (ages 19-40) which is marked by the search for intimacy or deeper connections between the self and others.

In his work with young adult males, Verhaagen began to note a gap between Adolescence and Young Adulthood fueled by several key factors. For one, the onset of puberty takes place at younger and younger ages, so that adolescence comes earlier than ever before. At the same time, unlike in the “olden days,” young males are no longer expected to fend for themselves as soon as they turn 18 or even 21. Thus, fueled in no small part by the recession of the past five years, the age at which young adults are expected to be able to support themselves has been pushed out further and further. So, in effect, boys take much longer than ever before to become independent men.

Verhaagen has identified what he calls “Pre-Adulthood” as a new phase of development between Adolescence and Young Adulthood for males 16-24, During this phase, the growth issue is one of “responsibility vs. diversion.” In other words, “Will the top priority be acting as a responsible adult or doing what is fun?”

Many parents will recognize this phase in their sons who, rather than beating the bushes for whatever employment they can find, appear content to play “Call of Duty” or “Halo 4” on their PlayStation 3 or X-box 360 for hours on end. And, when they are not playing online video games with friends, they are downloading entire seasons of  “Breaking Bad” or “Game of Thrones” from Netflix and watching them nonstop for days at a time  (what is being termed the new trend of “binge TV watching”). Parents who have been stressed and stretched by the tough economy have trouble being sympathetic to what appears to be laziness, irresponsibility,
entitlement and boredom on the part of their Pre-Adult sons.

Issues we’ve heard parents struggle with:
- What if he appears to have no goals for becoming independent?
- What if he actually is very directed towards his goals, but they are ones I oppose, such as becoming a professional poker player?
- What if he is working but seems too content with his part-time job at Target or Starbucks that provides spending money but won’t enable him to pay rent and move out on his own?
- What if his exclusive priority is his girlfriend, which appears to hinder him from progressing in other aspects of his life?
- What if I find him hard to be around at home because he seems irritable and out of sorts a lot of the time?
- What if there is tension or conflict about curfews, chores or money?

Even parents who don’t feel resentful or angry at their sons may nonetheless feel ill equipped to motivate, guide and empower them to get on a successful path.

Given how difficult it is today to find a job, let alone meaningful work, it is not surprising that many pre-adult males will find entertainment, solace and escape in music, video games, social networking, romantic relationships, getting high or turning to Internet Porn.

What, then, are the keys to supporting our pre-adult sons as they sort out that tension between responsibility and pleasure in this stage between adolescence and adulthood?
 
10 TIPS FOR PARENTS TO HELP THEIR PRE-ADULT SONS TAKE FLIGHT INTO ADULTHOOD:
 
1. UNDERSTAND AND EMPATHIZE WITH THEIR EXPERIENCE: If they are struggling, try to “get it” before you offer any prescription about what to do about it. If they are inexplicably content with what you consider a direction-less existence, do your best to realize many young males live for the moment, not for the future, especially if the future isn’t so appealing. If he doesn’t feel you really understand how tough it is for him, your insistence that he, as the old Nike commercial put it, “Just do it,” may prompt resistance if not outright defiance.

2. AFFIRM HIS STRENGTHS AND ACKNOWLEDGE HIS EFFORTS NOT JUST RESULTS:
For “Pre-Adult” males who are trying to find their stride, it may be more motivating and encouraging for them to know what you respect and appreciate about him than hearing your ideas for how he needs to change. Keep an eye out for his strengths, and how he is exhibiting them, and reflect that back to him. For example, praise him for that part-time job even as you recognize he needs to earn more money to support himself fully.

In addition even though your bottom line may be having him earn money and be able to pay rent, make sure to applaud him for the efforts he is taking to look for work, or to be a part of the family, even if your private thoughts are that he should be doing more.

3. PAY CLOSE ATTENTION TO ANY HINTS OF EMBARRASSMENT OR SHAME:
Not moving forward at the same pace as their friends may bring up feelings of inadequacy or embarrassment. Those same feelings may arise if he is falling short of his expectations of himself, or your expectations of him. Because they feel too vulnerable directly expressing these feelings, hints of those feelings may instead come in the form of the opposite behavior from what you might expect: aggressiveness, bluster, apathy, etc.

4. ASSESS HIS MOTIVATION AND READINESS TO TAKE STEPS TO CHANGE HIS LIFE.
Talk With Him Calmly About:
-What is most important to him (school, work, relationships)
-How confident he is about being able to address those issues
-Where does he feel most competent? Least competent?

The most difficult combination may be where an issue is important, such as finding a decent job or a romantic partner, but where he feels least confident about being able to be successful.

5. CREATE A STRUCTURE, AND RENEGOTIATE BOUNDARIES & CHORES:
Whether he is returning home after living away or has never left, set up a structure that addresses both his responsibilities at home and his activities outside the home (see #7). For example, renegotiate curfews and what chores he is responsible for, and in what time frame. Also, work out with him when he can and cannot play video games in the family room. Take into account your needs as well as his.  It’s OK to insist he not hang out on the couch in the family room 24/7 because you need some space free of him as well as because it’s not in his best interest to veg out so much.

6. BE FIRM BUT SPECIFIC AND REALISTIC IN YOUR EXPECTATIONS OF HIM:
If he is job-hunting, for example, you may want him to think of job-hunting as his “job” and expect him to do it 8 hours a day; while it is fine to be firm about his taking the job hunt seriously, having him send out resumes or pound the pavement 2-4 hours a day may be more realistic. At the same time, if he claims he is too discouraged to put in that time, empathize with his feelings but still insist that he take little steps forward. You may even need to sit with him or go with him to give him the extra support it takes to get him over the hump.

7. FIND TIMES TO PLAY AND RELAX TOGETHER:
Even if your son is too alienated to want to hang out with his parents, deep down he wants your approval and wants a positive connection with you. So keep holding out the invitation to have fun, relaxed times together.

8. CONSIDER VIEWING HIS PREDICAMENT AS THE NEED FOR SKILL DEVELOPMENT:
As parents we tend to forget how much we learn over the course of our lives, so it may not be apparent to your son that he needs to make personal contact in search of jobs, send thank you notes after informational interviews, or influence others by his smile and positive energy. These may seem like lack of motivation but they may be more about needing to learn the skills to be successful. Ask him if he would like help from you with the process of job-hunting or interviewing skills.

9. DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF MODELING TO HIM:
Even if he angrily dismisses the idea that you might have anything to teach him, know that your actions will have more impact than what you say. So be conscious of modeling to him (either directly or by what he observes being at home), some of the traits that are known to contribute to successfully achieving goals. These include:
* The ability to talk about feelings openly and honestly
* The ability to express your frustration and anger in constructive ways
* The ability to show empathy and compassion
* The ability to set and keep realistic goals
* The belief that good choices lead to good outcomes (meaning you act on the belief you can influence outcomes in your life rather than deciding it’s out of your control)

10. CONSIDER SEEKING PROFESSIONAL HELP FOR HIM AND/OR YOURSELF  ...
if the situation is too tense, if the anger and frustration become unmanageable,
or if you reach an impasse regarding chores or curfews. This can happen in the best
of families.

There are family therapists and life coaches experienced in helping young men and their families through this important transition from adolescence to adulthood. While the anger and frustration the parent feels is valid and understandable, professional help can assist you and your son to move onto a path of independence and success.

This article was written by CCMC Director Steven Freemire, MFT. Contact Steven with any questions or comments at stevenfreemire@gmail.com or 510-869-2505.


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