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  • Writer's picturePetra

ADHD and Problems Transitioning to Adulthood: Failure to Launch

Failure to launch is a term used to describe the difficulties some young adults experience when trying to transition into the roles and responsibilities typically associated with adulthood. It is not a formal diagnosis, but rather an observable phenomenon that can be influenced by various factors, including neurodevelopmental conditions such as ADHD and autism, and mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. In America it can be known as Peter Pan syndrome (the boy who never grows up), and in Japan it can be known as hikikomori. Young men are more likely to experience failure to launch than young women.

A young adult experiencing failure to launch might exhibit the following behaviours:

  1. Failing to transition from high school to either employment or study.

  2. Reliance on parents or caregivers for financial support and/or housing.

  3. Lack of long-term personal goals or educational or career plans.

  4. Poor time management and organisational skills.

  5. Poor or non-existent self-care, eating, and exercise behaviours.

  6. Very few real-life relationships (there may be online friends). A paucity or lack of romantic relationships.

  7. Resistance to taking on adult responsibilities related to independent living, including cooking, cleaning, or paying bills.

  8. Restricted activities that take up all their time. A common one for young men is an intense focus on online gaming.

  9. Sleep phase changes. A person may exhibit a very delayed sleep phase (see my delayed sleep phase blog post for more information about this), and some people move to a reversed sleep cycle where they sleep during the day and are awake at night. This can often be sustained by online gaming in different times zones where waking hours are quite different.

  10. Signs of mental illness of which the most common are mood and anxiety disorders. Substance use may also be a problem, the most frequent being cannabis use.

Failure to launch is usually a pretty complex situation to intervene in, which can become more entrenched the longer it continues. It can also be tied in with significant concern, angst, and conflict between the affected person and their parents. There may have been a series of altercations, threats, and withdrawals of support along the way.

Below are some treatments that can be used for helping an affected person to make changes to their life:

  1. Therapy: Engaging in individual therapy with a mental health professional, such as a psychologist or counsellor, can help the young adult explore the reasons behind their struggles, develop coping strategies, and work towards their personal goals, which will likely focus initially on developing a consistent daily routine. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) are two therapeutic approaches that may be particularly helpful.

  2. Diagnosis and medication: If the failure to launch is related to an underlying mental health condition like ADHD, anxiety, or depression, accurate diagnosis and medication may be a crucial adjunct to therapy. A consultation with a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist can help determine if an assessment could be useful.

  3. Family therapy: Involving the family in the therapeutic process can help to address any family dynamics that might be contributing to the young adult's difficulties. Family therapy can facilitate better communication, understanding, and support among family members.

  4. Career counselling: A career counsellor can help the individual explore their interests, strengths, and values to identify suitable career paths and provide guidance on education, training, and job search strategies.

  5. Encouraging real-world social engagement: Helping the young adult to build a support network and engage in social activities can foster a sense of belonging and connection, which can contribute to their overall well-being and resilience.

Depending on how entrenched a person has become in the failure to launch role, progress may be very slow and initial behaviour expectations are likely to be small. Think several months or a year or more rather than several weeks. Motivation levels may be low, especially if the person is being pressured to change by a family member, and anxious and avoidant tendencies are likely to be strong. There is likely to be failure in completing behaviour change tasks along the way. Keeping expectations low and the time horizon long can help with feelings of frustration from all sides.

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