Review and summary of Failure to Launch

Failure to Launch: Why Your Twentysomething Hasn’t Grown Up … and What to Do About It

by Mark McConville, Ph.D.

Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2020, ISBN 9780525542186 (hardcover) and 9780525542209 (epub)


This book caught my eye on the ‘recently returned’ shelf at the Nelson Public Library, partly because it has a bright yellow cover, and partly because I have a few friends who have expressed frustrations at their grown-up children coming back to the nest when they should have well and truly flown it. McConville shares insights he has gained during his many years working with families as a clinical psychologist, when young people have ‘a hard time getting a foothold in their adult lives’.

It gave me insights into developmental stages people go through and non-useful emotional traps which families can fall into. It was interesting for me to look back on my own experience of leaving home to go to boarding school and then university, and finally marrying and setting up my own home, and seeing some of the traps that I and my family fell into.

Summary of the book’s contents

Part 1 

This explores what transitions take place between high school and children leaving the family home. Anxieties are higher as risks are greater than in previous generations. The common denominator is that they lack the three key skills – becoming responsible, developing relationships, and becoming relevant. The structures of high school that have given young people their sense of purpose vanish, and the sense of freedom can become fearful.

Part 2 

This section discusses the developmental skills needed to become an adult.

The three key skills

Becoming responsible

Learning how to take ownership of their lives. Failure to do admin tasks like making phone calls and procrastination are often the result of fear of making mistakes in an adult world. Am I capable? Will I be taken seriously? Vulnerability creates a feeling of shame – danger of embarrassment / humiliation is high. Support them, see through their avoidance to the anxiety and uncertainty beneath. 

Becoming relational

Emerging adults must retool their relationships and find new sources of support. They need to develop an anchoring and nourishing adult peer group – these are interdependence relationships. They may have been previously acting out a role or believe that it’s weak to ask for help. They also need to ‘horizontalise’ their relationship with their parents – this becomes more adult and reciprocal than the previous scenario of parents looking after kids. The parents move from supervisor to consultant. The transitioner needs to make the initiative to make this happen.

Becoming relevant

Emerging adults must find a sense of direction, a ‘posture of hopefulness towards the future’. No direction leads to a feeling of despair, and feelings of existential meaninglessness. Parents can create holding environments which foster a sense of direction towards an adult future, for example, a structured gap year or outward bound course. Bubble worlds like online games don’t progress the child any further. Mentoring from an older person makes the youth feel relevant, valued. 

Part 3 

This explores the parents’ roles in helping their children, and advises how they can help their transitioners.

  • Own your role and move past it – don’t continue behaviour fuelled by guilt. 
  • Don’t do democratic parenting. Pick your battles, talk about big-picture stuff, don’t confuse your preferences with your expectations. 
  • Modelling (what they see you do) and family culture play a big role.  
  • Fix the boundaries, don’t try to fix the behaviour. 
  • Your job is not to motivate your child, but to create the circumstances that support motivation.  
  • Support, but don’t enable, your struggling transitioner. Look at what the recipient does with the help that’s offered to work out the difference – impact vs intent.  Don’t provide ‘unwise, unlimited parental financial support’. Essential material support is discretionary in adulthood, not obligatory as in adolescence.
  • Don’t catastrophise or be a helicopter parent. The parent-child relationship is voluntary on both sides. Help is transactional – I do this if you do that. 
  • Take the interest of parents into account. 
  • Stay connected even when times are tough.  Rules for communication – start with empathy, honour boundaries, STAY CONNECTED. 

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