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Failure to Launch Part 3: What It Is and What It Isn’t

Chances are if you landed on this webpage, you are concerned about a young adult who still lives at home and does not seem to be moving forward in life.  Maybe that person is you, or maybe it’s a son or daughter, or someone in your extended family.  That young person may have been diagnosed with one or more mental health disorders, such as anxiety  and depression, or an autism spectrum disorder, such as Asperger’s syndrome.  Or there may be no mental health history at all.

The young adult at home may have attended some semesters of college or even graduated.  He or she may even have a job.  But for some reason, often unknown to parents, the young person seems overwhelmed by the demands of life and does not take steps to move towards independence.

At www.rtor.org we know that failure to launch is a real problem because we receive calls and emails every day from parents and relatives, and young adults themselves, asking for help.


What Failure to Launch Is Not

The term failure to launch (FTL) can be misleading.  There are so many negative feelings and misconceptions about this term, it might be better to start with a definition of what it isn’t.

Failure to launch is not a diagnosis – It is a common expression that serves as the title of a bad romantic comedy from 2006, Failure to Launch . We use the term on www.rtor.org because that’s the way many people see the problem.  Failure to launch is a popular expression that many people understand and use on the Internet when they are looking for help.  But it’s not a formal diagnosis.

Failure to launch is not a “failure” – One of the readers of my blog recently left a comment describing herself as “FTL.” I quickly pointed out that she, like most young people in her situation, was struggling with real challenges that were holding her back from living the kind of life she wanted. This is not a failure, because she recognized the need to do something different and she still had a chance to live the life she wanted.  Most people in an FTL situation want to change, but don’t know what to do. Reaching out for help or advice is a sign of a person’s willingness to change the situation. It is not a failure, but a step on the path to a better future!

Failure to launch is not the result of bad parenting – It is not caused by helicopter parenting, too many participation trophies, or overly permissive childrearing practices.  At the root of most FTL situations are real mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, developmental delays, and missing life skills.

Failure to launch is not just a problem for millennials – FTL has been happening in most modern cultures for generations.  It is a problem that I, as a professional, became aware of in the late 1980s, when I encountered cases of grown men and women in their fifties and sixties living at home and still dependent on their parents.  Millennials were not the first generation to experience FTL, but they are the ones who most often experience it today.


So What is Failure to Launch?

On www.rtor.org we use the term “failure to launch” in a non-judgmental way to describe the frustration and concern families feel when young adults seem unable to move forward and achieve the major tasks of life expected for their age.  In this situation, families describe the young person as “being stuck” or unable to get on with their life.

Failure to launch is often seen as an inability or extreme reluctance to engage in the typical life tasks for emerging young adults:

  • obtaining a higher education
  • finding a job and launching a career
  • developing a sense of identity
  • learning to self-regulate
  • forming intimate relationships with others outside the family
  • moving out of the family home

Parents may notice that the more they push their young adult at home to take on these age appropriate life tasks, the more resistance they encounter.  Some young people need a push to get outside their comfort zone and move forward in their lives.  However, when resistance is strong, underlying mental health problems could be the cause.


When to Seek Outside Help

More of today’s young adults live at home than any generation in living memory.  Social, economic, and educational considerations that have nothing to do with mental illness are partly responsible for this trend.  It is very common for young people today to need an extra semester or two of college to complete their degree requirements.  And it can be hard for young people just starting out to earn a living wage in today’s job and housing markets.

Don’t automatically assume that your 22-year-old at home is experiencing FTL if she is making visible effort and progress towards the life tasks above.  However, a number of young adults living with their parents may be experiencing significant mental health problems that lead to a failure to launch.


In most cases, a mental health-related FTL problem will not resolve itself without seeking outside help from a professional.  Signs that a young adult may need help for a mental health problem related to failure to launch include:

  • Easily frustrated and discouraged; low levels of persistence
  • Lacks accountability or reluctant to take responsibility
  • Poor work ethic and low levels of motivation
  • Exaggerated sense of entitlement; narcissism or an inappropriately high opinion of self
  • Unreasonably high expectations of others (especially parents) often without reciprocating
  • Lack of basic life skills needed for independent living, such as cooking, cleaning, doing laundry
  • Feelings of extreme highs and lows; moodiness or rapidly changing emotions
  • Excessive anger, sadness, or irritability
  • Unusual eating and sleeping patterns
  • Hopelessness about the future
  • Withdrawal from friends and social life
  • Inappropriate or excessive use of alcohol and drugs
  • Over-dependence on electronic devices, such as smartphones and gaming systems, at times resembling addiction

Fortunately, many if not all of these issues can be addressed with the proper mental health treatment.  The process often begins with an assessment and evaluation by a psychiatrist or psychotherapist.  Our Resource Specialist can help you with the details of finding an appropriate mental health provider in the community where you live.


If you or someone you know is showing signs of a failure to launch or possible mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community.


Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

Contact a Resource Specialist


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Jay Boll, Editor in Chief www.rtor.org

4 thoughts on “Failure to Launch Part 3: What It Is and What It Isn’t

  1. Nisa says:

    Why are you always attributing failure to launch, as a mental health problem? Maybe the problem is the way in which society has changed. It looks like there is not enough long term stable well paying jobs and affordable housing for people to live, how society expects them to live. This is the cause! So what can be done about this?

  2. Jay Boll, Editor in Chief www.rtor.org says:


    Thanks for reading the blog and commenting.

    There are many young adults who live at home with their parents for economic reasons, lack of affordable housing, or just because it’s convenient to do so. In many such cases, the young adults help around the house and are furthering their education or looking for a job.

    Our series of blog posts on Failure to Launch is about a different kind of problem with some young adults who have anxiety, depression, substance use, or other issues that make it hard for them to move towards an independent living situation outside of the parents’ home.

    Changes in society have probably made it harder for all young adults, whether or not they have problems with mental health, to live independently. Thank you for pointing out the societal aspect of this problem.


  3. Nisa says:

    Also I would just like to add, how on earth can someone be expected to live on a salary of say £/$1500 a month, but be expected to pay £/$2000 a month mortgage or rent, not including other living costs? Not everybody wants to live with strangers either. That is why so many adults live at home. Previous generations were able to move out, because jobs were easier to find and living costs, including rent, were proportional to salaries or wages paid. Why is this economic standard not brought back? if it were, the statistics would be different and a lot of people would be happier as a result!

  4. Charleen says:

    Nise, You make a good point as I see this as an issue in our situation with our son as well. However, I also see some of the other things that go along with it in my son. He seems afraid to do anything on his own, he has anxiety, he has used drugs that nearly put him in the hospital, he has the emotional highs and lows…my youngest two children have both had trouble “launching” into life, but my son especially. When I came across this article it peeked my interest because of the similarities I see in my son and I honestly think he needs help. On the other hand we are trying to be supportive. All the way around supportive by helping with finances, emotional support, suggestions and encouragement. He has had trouble keeping a job and once he gets one he seems to want to quit as soon as things get tough…our choice? Well, we can kick him out and watch as he sinks deeper into the black hole of doubt and discouragement…we can hope he will make it, but we have been working with him for over a year now. He has a job now and I’m hoping he beats his record of holding a job for more than 7 months. We completely financed his first auto and paid for the insurance to help him get started, but then that blew up in that he wrecked the car. This time we supported him but did not buy the car for him…he put his own money down and will make his own monthly payments/insurance payments etc…back to what you said though…I hear you…it is one of our problems as well. Our son has to work a little at a time on launching out on his own because he cannot afford a thousand dollars a month for a place to stay, but getting his own car is a small start. I’m grateful I found this information as I learned some important information that will help me with my son in the future. Best wishes to you.

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