I’m sorry, but I reject the notion of “Failure to Launch.” Apologies to friends and colleagues in the field, Matthew McConaughey and thrivers of the boomerang generation, but the term just sucks. What a crappy way to have to explain part of your position in life:

Committed Mental Health Professional: “So what brings you in today?”

Twenty-something: “I’m failure to launch. Like, the poster child. Er..adult, poster adult.”

CMHP: “Whoa, whoa, whoa….Hey c’mon now. That doesn’t sound very solution-focused.”

TS: “No kidding.”

OR, maybe even worse….

 Twenty-something’s friend: “Hey, yo, where you been? I heard something, but I didn’t get it.”

Twenty-something: “Ah, well, just ah, I…I uh failure to launch.”

TSF: “Oh, that er…sucks. Well, see ya.”

TS: “No kidding.”

How many of us have been more than understanding and compliant by not calling someone by their label? (I.e.- See “Oh well she’s a borderline.” And how about “He’s so frigging ADHD.” Or even “You mean the co-dependents?”—You get what I mean.) My wife and I were talking about this AGAIN in the car the other day, and then we had the idea to bring you all into it. Don’t mention it, you’re welcome.

Again, apologies to all the great thoughts and work before us. Many programs and practitioners have done truly amazing and probably life-saving work for folks of the current generation of young adults, and we truly respect their work from which all the rest will be built upon. Maybe this notion of mine is too mired in the minutia and metacognition, but I do believe that language is important. (Notice my strategic use of profanity above, and spoiler alert—below.) So with that apology I ask that we all begin to think about new terminology.

The language we use in mental health to help to identify, to describe and to treat people’s SYMPTOMS has evolved to be more conscientious of the people we serve. My gastroenterologist would get an earful if he described me by my Crohn’s diseases symptoms. Hi, I’m Darrell and I suffer from Failure to Have Regular Bodily Functions. Or alternately, if he described me by Failure to Manage This Chronic Burning Pain in My Intestine so Excuse Me If I Pass on the Ghost Pepper Siracha Aoli. This stuff just isn’t pretty for anybody. To be sure, search failure to launch on Urban Dictionary and see what kids and young adults think it means. We need a new term.

Where else in our field do we use the term “failure” for a headline? Failure to thrive? Nope, not anymore. We figured that one out, and now refer to it as “faltering weight.” Good job everyone. Failure to Launch is really an epic fail, and before we get served with a failure to appear by our constituents, let’s get down to business.

Oh and about the launch part, what are we really talking about here? Right or wrong, my interpretation (based on the literature) is that the “launch” is about leaving the nest. Launch is a verb, and connotes leaving. Houston, we have a problem though. How many families really want to launch their adult children like satellites going to explore Pluto and never to return? Sure they may send images and information about what they’re up to, but there won’t be any more shared holidays or visits in the twilight years. My guess, based solely on personal experience, is that most are looking for more of a periodic or even episodic return engagement.

So let’s continue with the metaphor and think about a pre-launch sequence. Astronauts are not like the rest of us. A serious selection process, followed by significant specialized training and then only a few actually get to launch. And their goal is to launch AND THEN TO RETURN, not simply to launch. In fact, if they only launched, that mission might justifiably be looked at as a failure.

If you use your metaphoric lens of flying commercially (something that more of us can understand experientially,) and connect the dots, it paints a potentially very challenging picture. Think about all of the executive functioning pitfalls in air travel. Once you figure out your destination, departure time and that there’s something there for you on the other end, you have to figure out what to pack (and hopefully you checked the weather report to know if you need your parka, flip-flops or both.) Make sure you set your alarm, arrange for transportation to the airport, bring your ticketing information, check your bags and that you know what passing through security is like and how to meet the expectations of this vetting process.

Next try to find your way to your gate (relatively easy), and resist all the urges that might prevent you from boarding on time (relatively hard: shopping, food, the bar, etc.) Be sure to board with the right group so as not to create conflict with your cohorts. Make sure your carry-on will fit in the overhead so as not to disrupt traffic by having to walk it back off the plane. Overcome the anxiety of settling in to your middle seat between two folks to whom you would otherwise never be this close. Be both patient and efficient as you attempt to make your connecting flight while waiting for your cohorts to de-plane. Repeat, and get on your next plane. Then go to baggage and collect your stuff before trying to catch a shuttle or find your ride. Whew. Transition anxiety? Yup. Come on, truthfully we didn’t just become savvy travelers just because we were old enough to fly alone.

When we do travel this way, we tend to do so by means of a round trip. For many of us, our hope or even expectation for our emerging adult children is that our homes are more like multi-use travel hubs. They return from time to time to the hub for both obligation (holidays, family events, breaks, etc.) and pleasure (holidays, family events, breaks, etc.) Like when they were toddlers, it’s easier for them to test the world (and object permanency) when they can see that we are accessible if need be. Separation anxiety and enmeshment can be the real enemy here, so exercising some systematic desensitization can help. Even if this process began in adolescence with stays in treatment or boarding school, it may be necessary to do it again in a very thoughtful and different way with emerging adults. Not to cross metaphors, but ripping off the band aid might not work for everyone. Parents included.

The boomerang seems more fitting than the launch metaphor, unless we think of launching and re-launching on a daily basis. Particularly when navigating our emerging adulthood, we tend to reinvent ourselves many times over. Regardless though (or as they say in my old neighborhood west of Boston—irregahhdless) the problem is the use of the term failure. There are many ways to achieve a failure and perhaps many more to succeed as an emerging adult. Let’s try to nail down some realistic expectations, and provide some appropriate supports.

So what to do? So far I’ve spent a lot of time just admiring the problem. What’s an alternative? A potential solution? Let me get to that in the next blog, send me your thoughts….Let’s talk soon.

–Darrell