Struggling to Launch
Are you struggling with the launch of your young adult child?
As a coach, I’ve worked with both parents and young adults wrestling with the launch.
Here are a few scenarios from the caregivers’ perspective.
She breezed through high school. Now, she can’t land anywhere for long. My family and friends tell me she’s spoiled. My daughter makes a great case each time she races to the next thing, and we want to support her, but it never lasts longer than a few months. She ends up feeling like a failure, and we help her pick up the pieces until she’s inspired again.
He has worked the same part-time job since his senior year of high school. He lives with us, barely talks to us, and expects to come and go as he pleases. It’s been six months since graduation with no sign of a plan. My husband has an ultimatum ready to kick him into gear, and I worry he may be depressed.
She calls me at least three times a week from school riddled with anxiety. I don’t think she’s leaving her dorm room except to go to class. She wants to quit one week and stay the next. It’s a roller coaster she wants me on with her, but she never takes my advice. I’m exhausted.
They have tremendous talent and talk about becoming an artist. They spend a lot of time creating and dreaming but not much more than that. They turned 20 in March, and there has been no movement in the direction of a job, school, or even more art training. I’ve offered it all. I don’t know how we got here.
Why Many Young Adults Struggle with the Launch
On our eighteen birthday, we wake to adulthood and a laundry list of unvetted, unpracticed expectations while still housing a brain that needs about another decade to finish developing.
The adjustment to this exponentially complex world of internalized shoulds, higher stakes, less guardrails, increased sensory input, fluctuating norms, and unspoken rules, while living in a culture of comparison and outdated systems, will force all of us to meet our edges.
For many neurodivergent young adults, it can mean a breaking point. Some find coping mechanisms like hypervigilance or community supports utilized in a smaller, more insular pond not sufficient for life on the ocean. Those who have little experience asking for help may not be able to articulate the need or may fear losing autonomy. If struggling into adulthood has not been modeled or normalized, shame may roadblock the help we desire. If support means our caregiver’s way or the highway, we may absorb the burden to the point of collapse.
Although what’s getting in the way varies, I have never met a young adult who did not want to lean into their own launch; they want to feel capable, empowered, autonomous, and excited about the next step.
So, how can we, as parents and caregivers support them in the gap?
Some Ways Caregivers Can Support Their Young Adult Children
1. We can challenge unexamined internalized beliefs and biases.
When we are brave enough to examine and challenge our beliefs and biases in the context of another’s struggle, we get closer to the truth about their challenges, strengths, and circumstances. We get closer to the truth about what’s possible and what really works. The right kind of support requires us to start with our feet firmly planted in the truth.
If our struggles were disciplined out of us or dismissed as quirks when we were younger, it can be activating to allow spaciousness when our young adult children move slowly or take a non-linear path. If we grew up in homes and systems singularly focused on outcomes, cultivating quality of life during the in-between may feel like a luxury or coddling. If success was determined by certain markers on a designated timeline, our fear may be driving our approach.
When we take time to investigate what worked for me, what’s always been, or what the world says through a critical lens, we widen and empower ourselves as caregivers.
We gain access to more tools, more perspectives, and more ways of being in the world– for our children and for us. We expand our awareness to better understand their unique individual and generational challenges. This awareness can let us off the hook for having all the answers, so we can get curious. We find more peace in the one size does not have to fit all.
2. We can learn how to set healthy boundaries.
Boundaries are informed by what we can live with, what we are willing to do or not do so that we may protect our personal values, capacity, and resources.
Boundaries are not made to drive out certain outcomes or behaviors from our adult children. We want to keep boundaries and requests separate talking points. If setting boundaries with them is new to us, it may be really uncomfortable. However, the discomfort of drawing lines for ourselves or watching our adult children grapple with the natural consequences from meeting the edges of our boundaries is not a signal we have a new problem to fix or we have done something wrong. We have to practice being with this discomfort as much as we practice setting and upholding our boundaries.
Boundaries help buffer us from resentment and burnout by reflecting, addressing, and tethering to what we can control about our current circumstances.
Healthy boundaries increase our capacity for compassion, clarity, and attunement. And because they belong to us, we can give ourselves permission to revisit them and make adjustments with new information or changes in our circumstances.
3. We can hold space for their experience as they tell it and give ourselves permission to not fix it.
To make space for their experience, we must start by clearing the clutter collected through our perception of the situation. Most young adults will reject vulnerable conversations if they do not trust we will meet them inside their lived experience. Outward behavior offers us much less insight into someone's internal world than we are conditioned to believe. When we set aside our assessments, we can focus on curiosity instead of rushing to incomplete solutions or strategies. We can move into conversations more prepared to believe them.
Having conversations where we attune to their truth, listen without defending or rescuing, increases their level of internal safety as well as the safety in our connection.
Anytime we can partner with them to create more safety, their access to a richer understanding of what’s going on underneath the surface deepens. The likelihood they will reach out for help again rises. It’s a beautiful gift whether or not they invite you along on the rest of the journey.
4. We can seek outside support for ourselves.
By the time we reach adulthood, we are chest deep in eighteen years’ worth of expressed and implied shoulds. For those eighteen years, whether we like it or not, they’ve been watching how we engage with the shoulds.
Our relationship to making mistakes, unmet expectations, seeking support, learning, struggling, healing, pivoting, transparency, vulnerability, curiosity, success, and change is on full display for our children. We can tell them it’s okay to make mistakes, but if they never witness us make them, they receive a conflicting message. We can advocate for asking for help, but if all they see is our self sufficiency, they may feel shame accepting support.
The good news is we don’t need a time machine. It’s never too late to regroup, repair, or reparent– them or ourselves.
Even one small, intentional step into a personal support space can generate more peace, a perspective shift, or a pivotal awareness. Personal support places can offer us invaluable tools: normalizing, encouraging, more effective language and skills, and the spaciousness we need to stay tethered to what matters most to us.
As caregivers, we don’t have ultimate control over where they land, but we can create more intention around what we are launching them toward and how we show up in this space.
We aren’t meant to do this hard stuff alone or to have all of the answers on any given day. Be gentle with yourself. Learning to walk alongside our adult children in a way that works for us, especially if no one ever modeled this for us, can be as much of a process as it is for them to move into adulthood in a way that works for them.
What's one small step you could take today
toward the perspective or capacity you need in this season?
Sarah Durham is a Neurodivergent Coach who partners with teens and adults who are struggling to manage life through different milestones, transitions, or changes. You can find out more about her at www.kattywhompous.com