Failure to Launch, Defined
What can we do when our child is afraid to grow up? We let go of our emotional anchors a million times between birth and death. Each instance brings with it the same seesaw mix of anxiety and opportunity. Anytime that the terror outweighs the adventure, we cling tight to that which is secure and familiar.
The healthy child toddles forth in greater and greater arcs of exploration, confident that his anxiety can be managed, that the anchor rope is secure. He carries in his arms or his wallet or his mind bits and pieces of the security that he associates with Mom or Dad, his emotional anchors, and these refuel him. They give him confidence to keep exploring until he can find a group or club or gang and then an intimate partner to hold him tight. To anchor him.
Adultified, parentified and infantilized children, however, are the anchors. A parent’s selfish and misplaced needs keep the anchor rope short; it makes growing up and growing apart too scary, not because the world is threatening, but because autonomy means loss. These children’s identities are so enmeshed with their parents’ well-being that they might never truly separate. In the words of a popular contemporary movie, this is failure to launch.
This failure is not about the child’s ability—at least, not at first. When cognitive or medical differences restrict a child’s capacity to separate, we do everything we can to give them as much autonomy as possible. The privacy and freedoms that they are able to safely manage. To let them go in every way that they are able.
And this is not about money. College loans and the vagaries of the job market, fixed incomes, medical expenses, and the economy in general force lots of kids to live at home and lots of parents to move in with their adult children. Parents and children can share a space and a budget and can even become coParents to a child’s child while remaining mature and separate people, each with their own lives. Each with their own anchors apart from or in addition to the other.
The child who fails to launch may not have the confidence and security to leave home, to move away from the anchor that Mom and Dad provide, and to affiliate with groups or clubs or cliques like way stations on the way out of his parents’ orbit. Instead, the gravity of his parents’ needs and his anxiety keep him home, functional and perhaps even happy within a very small container, but lacking the skills to manage in almost any other environment.