Popular culture calls it “failure to launch.” For too many families, having a grown child, full of potential but not progressing towards adulthood turns into a nightmare. It is a nightmare in which nothing seems to produces results. Plans, threats, promises, and strategies all fail. Tough love brings screaming conflict. Understanding is happily accepted but fails to produce change. Young people are sure they know what they need, but when they have it there is still no improvement. Some are angry and uncooperative. Others acknowledge that they need to change, but see some factor out of their control as blocking their progress. The situation can’t go on, but it does, month after month.
This book is to help families and young people understand what has happened and how to begin a personal countdown to adulthood. To put it succinctly, the problem is that our culture places a high value on comfort and security, while the world our young people must join is anything but comfortable and secure. Faced with a need for relief from stress and discomfort, too many teens and young adults learn that less than full engagement with life is the answer. Over time, habits of avoidance lead them away from the mainstream to a place where the pain, shame and stress of catching up to their peers are more than they are willing or able to face.
Help usually starts with a call from a parent, hoping that I will somehow make their young person get up at a reasonable hour and start acting like an adult. Unfortunately, I know already that neither I, nor anyone I know, has the ability to make a young person, already addicted to comfort, face the level of stress that must be overcome to re-engaging with life. Instead, Instead, I explain that I would like to meet with the parents first. As they come to understand what has happened, I will show them how they can become providers of the external motivation needed to restart their young adult’s growth.
Jason’s mother called about her son, 19, who had had some trouble in college and seemed to be depressed. Yes, I could, but would she tell me a bit more? Jason had been home for four months already and his parents wanted him to get a job. He said he would, but was staying up till 3:00 am, and sleeping till one in the afternoon. Not surprisingly, he didn’t seem to be having any luck finding work. I suggested a meeting with both parents before I saw Jason. Yes, she was willing, but she wasn’t sure her husband would agree, as he had very different ideas about how to deal with Jason.
A few days later, they both did come. As they sat down, tension was already in the room. John was not sure this would be of any use. He thought Jason was just lazy. In an exasperated tone, he explained that his wife had been much too soft and that what Jason needed was a good kick in the pants.
Mary began to tear up. “Please, John, the boy is confused and depressed. The more you yell at him, the more he withdraws. He feels hopeless about finding a job and too anxious even to apply.” She then shared her deepest fear that he might harm himself as his friend from high school had done the previous year.
Mary and John had a good marriage. Like every couple, they had their ups and downs but were beginning to look forward to retirement together. Now, since Jason had come home, they found themselves fighting bitterly. Mary tried to compensate for John’s harshness with even more understanding, while John saw himself as counteracting her enabling by exposing Jason to the tough realities of life. I had seen this situation many times before. Two loving and well-meaning parents were effectively cancelling out each other’s influence, leaving Jason to do whatever felt most comfortable to him. One could say he was testing his parents and they were not passing the test.
To me, the parental conflict was actually a hopeful sign. They, unlike Jason, were already motivated to change. Helping John and Mary work out their differences and present a united front was a problem that we could tackle right away.
I asked them to tell me more about Jason and his history. Jason had done well in grammar school, but in middle school, he never seemed to know what the homework was. He got by because he was smart, but did well only in the classes where he liked the teacher and the subject. He had a few friends, but was not very popular or social. As a freshman in high school, he fell in with kids his parents didn’t approve of. He had also experimented with marijuana, but all the kids seemed to do that.
In the spring of his sophomore year, he came home drunk and was grounded for a month. He seemed to have learned his lesson, but had developed a defiant attitude at home and was not doing his best in school. His parents got him a tutor, which helped a little. They asked the school to evaluate him for ADHD. The testing showed that he had some of the symptoms but not severely enough to be eligible for special accommodations. He saw a doctor, who was reluctant to prescribe powerful stimulant medication with such a marginal diagnosis. Jason seemed to mature a little in the last two years of high school. He got a summer job as a lifeguard, and received some praise for his work. His grades improved a little as he prepared to apply for colleges, but everyone said he could do better. At graduation, listening to others receive awards, there was little that he felt proud of.
Jason was accepted at two of the colleges he applied to and seemed excited when he and his parents drove him to start his college experience in a neighboring state. In the weeks that followed, as was usual for him, Jason was not very communicative. When John and Mary called, he said he was “fine.” At home for Thanksgiving, he was sullen and didn’t want to talk about school. John was stern with him, and they had a painful yelling match. Mary tried to get him to tell her about school, but his answers were monosylabic. When he returned to school, Mary couldn’t sleep, she was so worried. John felt there wasn’t much he could do, and hoped the boy would make an adjustment.
A few weeks later, a call came from the Dean’s office saying that Jason had been suspended from school. When his parents picked him up, he tearfully admitted that he had stopped attending class and had failed to take two of his final exams. He would be permitted to reapply for the next fall semester after obtaining medical clearance.
They told Jason he would have to get a job and help pay for the tuition that had been lost. They allowed him the use of Mary’s car car for his job hunt. At the beginning, he seemed relieved to be out of school and positive about work. Mary felt she shouldn’t nag him, and John, after a “man to man talk” with his son, hoped that Jason was maturing.
But time went by and Jason still hadn’t found work. He complained that he was having trouble sleeping and that there were no jobs that were even indirectly related to his future. He applied to openings he found on the Internet but got no responses. Over the next three months, he went out less and seemed to fall into a constant state of irritability. He told his mother he felt depressed. That is when she made the call.
Every young person struggling to launch into adulthood has a unique story, and I was looking forward to hearing Jason’s tell more of his. There were, however, elements that most have in common. What stood out so far was that, at this point, Jason had little hope and less motivation to begin digging his way out of the hole where he found himself. What energy he had left was channeled into fending off pain by not thinking about the dismal state of his life.
His parents had expected me to meet with Jason and turn him around. Where they had been unsuccessful, they were hoping I would be able to give him a drug and perhaps a pep talk that would make him ready to face a difficult and not very forgiving world. I knew from experience that my chances were slim.
The first problem was that Jason was not motivated. To put it more accurately, he was highly motivated to minimize his stress, and why not? For years, his parents had tried to sell him on the virtues of responsibility. Jason was not an eager shopper. He saw his father going every day to a job he didn’t really like. The few times Jason had tried hard to succeed at a challenge, the results didn’t seem worth the effort. Most of what he knew about the adult word was negative. Why should he go through the pain of repeated rejections only to be exploited? He didn’t see anything in it for him, so he wasn’t buying. His goal was to avoid anything painful.
My tasks were daunting. First I would have to disappoint Jason’s parents, letting them know that I couldn’t cure his non-motivation. Then I would have to show them that they, not I, could provide the initial package of external motivation. Finally, in order to do that, I would have to coach them to work together as a team. Internally, I took a deep breath and dove in.
First I painted a picture of how the world probably looks to Jason. Opening his parents’ eyes to the reasons behind his lack of motivation, I could empathize with them both about how hard they had been trying and how frustrating it was to have so little success. As they felt a glimmer of hope that they might not be the terrible parents they thought, I could begin to prepare them for the news that I don’t possess any special magic either. Jason would need to be motivated from outside, something I couldn’t do, but they could.
I introduced the idea that, at first and for a while, Jason would need what I call external motivation. Working with people with addictions had taught me that this kind of motivation is the workhorse that can often get a person’s wagon out of the ditch. In the addiction field, we call it “leverage.” For example, in employee assistance programs, the possible consequence of losing a career might be the outside factor motivating an addicted individual to accept treatment. Eventually, self-motivation has to take over, but at the beginning, external motivation is more reliable.
From here, I could bring in the idea that Jason’s parents were going to have to work together as a team. Pulling in opposite directions, they could not be effective. We talked about earlier times when their marriage was challenged. There was the time John was out of work. The only way they could make their house payments was to borrow from her parents. John didn’t want to do that. He thought the parents would interfere and Mary hadn’t been able to stand up to them in the past. Mary got over her defensiveness and agreed to talk to them in a way she had never done before. In the end, solving that problem has been good for both of them and for the marriage. I suggested that we were again at such a crossroads.
In Chapter 3, we will go into the details of how to develop a program of external motivation tailored to the unique strengths and weaknesses of each young person to get things moving again.
Next, I needed to prepare John and Mary for the fact that the job ahead would be long and hard. Psychological maturation and development are not naturally rapid processes. Think how long and arduous adolescence is under the best of circumstances. The fact that Jason has already been practicing avoidance since entering middle school means that by this time he is very skilled. This may slow the process further. His parents offered more details about his development.
From grammar school through fifth grade Jason had had an easy time. He had little homework and what he did have was easy. When he forgot to bring home a paper or book, Mary would take him back to school or call another mother for him. She made sure he kept up. The teachers liked him and school seemed to go smoothly.
At the start of Middle School, they had moved to another town. Mary had taken a job to help make the mortgage payments for their new house and didn’t have as much time to make sure every assignment was done. In addition to having a different room for each class, the teachers in the new school seemed less organized. It was hard to know what the assignments were and they didn’t communicate how he was doing. Jason would sometimes miss homework assignments. He still had average grades on tests because they were easy. When Mary came home from work, Jason would be watching TV. The fact that he had learned to slide by was not obvious, nor had it caused him any pain. To the contrary, in his academic life, it was easy to go unnoticed. Socially, he seemed a bit behind. He didn’t have many friends and seemed to prefer watching TV. He showed some talent at drawing, but didn’t want to take a class.
At the start of high school, Jason made a few new friends, but they weren’t his parents’ favorites. He was starting to show some adolescent rebelliousness and did not tell his mother when he forgot the materials to complete a homework assignment. During the summer, his social life became more active. He seemed a bit happier. He told his mother that he had tried smoking pot. She was horrified, but he told her that he didn’t like it and wouldn’t do it again. Mary had smoked pot a few times in college but didn’t tell Jason. They agreed to keep it from Dad.
The next year, they put Jason in an advanced math class, thinking already about college admissions. After two months, the school recommended that he return to regular math. He had not completed all his assignments and did not seem motivated to learn. His parents also wanted him to join a sport. But Jason objected. He was more interested in forming a band with his friends. John had played Guitar in college and they admired Jason’s creativity. Perhaps the band would gain some success and that would help him with his college admissions.
That was enough history for now. It was time to help them understand how Jason’s lack of motivation to engage with life was actually part of a pattern that had been building for years. Starting in middle school, when faced with real competition, he simply avoided engaging. He began to see any discomfort as toxic. He avoided studying hard and satisfied himself with average results. The few times he had been enthusiastic about learning, and had gotten recognition for it, he minimized his pleasure and soon forgot. The more he avoided uncomfortable situations, the more daunting they seemed. Eventually discomfort with emotions became downright terror. I was not surprised to find out that the band had not taken off and was soon abandoned. I was also not surprised to learn there were strong hints that Jason had not, in fact, stopped smoking pot.
As she told the story, Mary began to cry. She was feeling guilty about not being there for Jason. Could it be that her taking a job and failing to make sure he completed every assignment was the cause of his failure? Being a good mother was her mission in life. The thought of having failed or even having done a less than exemplary job was more than upsetting to her. Parental feelings of shame and failure can be a major problem in helping the young person. These upsetting emotions can form a barrier against focusing on what needs to be done. They will have to become an additional target of treatment.
Perhaps Mary’s feelings of inadequacy about her own parenting were one of the reasons for focusing on Jason’s complaint of depression. In our medically oriented culture, depression has come to be seen as coming out of the blue, having no relationship to the context. It is seen as an illness that simply “happens,” a misfortune independent from emotional factors. This kind of depression does exist, but the vast majority of depressed feelings are directly connected to the individual’s life and the meanings he or she attaches to events. But for Mary, the idea of an illness independent from parenting would draw her own attention away from worries about herself. It would potentially prove her innocence. For that reason, she may have had a bias in hoping I would be able to find and cure a “chemical imbalance” and rapidly restore Jason to normal functioning.
The more likely scenario was that Jason’s depressed feelings were caused by his unacknowledged, subliminal awareness that he was actually far behind his peers, and would have to face kinds of pain and stress he could only imagine, to rejoin mainstream adult life. In other words, Jason’s depression could very well be a result of what had happened in his life, rather than a cause.
I started the process of helping Mary accept that parenting is never perfect and helping her let go of shame and self-criticism that wouldn’t help her or Jason. I know as well as any parent that even the most well meaning of us have doubts and things we wish we had done differently. It is hard not to try to “re-engineer” our past decisions and hard to avoid feelings of shame, but these mental activities are of no help at all. In truth, the vast majority of parents do what they think is best at the time. Second-guessing our own parenting is a dead-end street. Even if serious mistakes were made, the only way to heal from them is to feel the pain, apologize and help the child move on. Compensating is not possible, only healing and overcoming. In fact, trying to “make up” for parenting failures can become a reason for over-indulgence and overlooking problems that should be addressed. This kind of enabling only compounds the damage.
So I tried to reassure her that she would do better not dwell on her own past decisions, and to focus on what Jason needed now, which would be challenging enough for her and for John.
By this time, it was becoming clear what had happened to Jason. He is a bright young man, and had been doing well, but on entering middle school, several factors combined to make him lose momentum. Early adolescence was when he began to realize that life is competitive and that his actions would begin to have real consequences. At the very time that realization settled in, he ran into several discouraging circumstances. He lost the familiarity of his old school and friends. The level of support from his mother and the new teachers dropped significantly. And finally, he found that when he avoided trying hard, he no longer felt the same level of disappointment when his results were under par. These critical experiences followed him into high school.
Once in high school, his own view of himself had dropped. He now saw himself as neither popular nor successful. There was pain with that, but he became increasingly skilled at shrugging off pain. He gravitated to friends who were doing the same and turning their disengagement into a virtue. They called it a “laid back lifestyle.” Through high school, each time he had an opportunity to challenge himself, he would turn the other way. He began to make friends with others who didn’t challenge him or themselves. As he did, he fell further behind his more successful peers. While his inner sense of shame and inadequacy increased, his ability to bury those emotions grew. Looking honestly at himself was beginning to be too much to bear. As he learned to slip by his challenges, he also became adept at rationalizing his rejection of mainstream life. The deficit grew year by year. By the time he entered college, he was not at all prepared to deal with the level of work that was expected. He had no chance of success. And now, at home, facing the world of work was nearly as uncomfortable. How did he handle discomfort? His deeply entrenched pattern was to run the other way.
Before we move on, it is time for a few words about adolescent psychological development. The way we grow emotionally is to go through experiences. The ones that are the most formative are the ones that stretch our abilities, the challenges. These were precisely the experiences that Jason had learned to avoid, using his intelligence to fend off criticism from others and to shield himself from his own shame. Let me outline five areas of maturation that usually happen during adolescence.
The first fundamental area is the development of impulse control. Young people learn to apply themselves to often boring assignments when they would rather go outdoors or “hang out” with friends. They also learn impulse control when they become interested in a sport, a musical instrument, or some other adult skill. As they apply themselves to perfecting these skills, they also learn to manage their own impulses to escape boredom and discomfort. They may practice shooting baskets or playing chords for hours until they achieve real proficiency. Jason practiced the opposite.
Another area of maturation is coming to know oneself. Teens try on funny hats and experiment with mannerisms. They sample different people and interests. As they do so, they discover their strengths, weaknesses, passions and their own style. Even more importantly, they test their own limits. By trying their utmost to achieve goals, they learn the measure of themselves. They gauge their popularity, their intelligence, their physical strength and agility. These experiences can be exhilarating and painful, but gradually they trace out a nuanced and three-dimensional view of the self. When challenges are avoided, these measures are not taken, and a true picture of the self remains shadowy and unknown.
Successes and failures build resilience. Failure is as much a learned skill, as is success. Persistence after failure is one of the greatest assets of professional athletes, among many others. Being able to get over a bad test or a loss in sports is one of the most important acquisitions of young adult life, available only to those who challenge themselves and expose themselves to both success and failure.
Teens tend to find friends at the same level of maturation as themselves. As they deepen their relationship with themselves, they also seek more substantial relationships with others. Jason found friends who were dedicated to not challenging or knowing themselves. As young people come to care for each other, healthy relationships involve challenge. Love relationships, especially, bring out maximal efforts to impress and please the other. The result is a chance again to stretch in ways that isolation could not teach. Friendships, love relationships, and connections with outside adults, like faculty members, take on deeper meaning and, in turn, teach adult skills of emotional intimacy, trust, and vulnerability.
Finally, the need to make choices deepens personal values. One of the great transformations of adolescence is the transition from borrowing the values of parents to holding one’s own values as if they were personal property. Late adolescence is the time when young people become such fierce owners of their values that they may be prepared to die for what they believe. By not making hard choices, values remain soft and abstract. Default decision making does not mature into firmly chosen pathways in life.
These five important acquisitions are what make up the state we call maturity. To the extent that we achieve maturity, we are prepared to make full use of our strengths and to cope with our weaknesses. In general, college is a place where young people begin to put the finishing touches on their maturity and use it to find their direction in life.
I am sorry to paint such a stark picture of the facets of maturity that Jason has missed out on so far. On the other hand, there is good news. Psychological maturation does happen only during the teen years. It can be acquired at any point in life. Films and literature are full of examples of growth during adulthood. To point this out may seem like a platitude, but my experience as a therapist includes many instances of people gaining important missing pieces of maturity far into adulthood. The truth is that most of us carry pockets of immaturity. The biggest challenge to growth turns out not to be “teaching an old dog new tricks,” but getting over the shame of admitting to being less of an adult than we might wish. Once we face that, then leaning into new experiences is exhilarating, as it is uncomfortable. Anyone can do it.
In closing our first session, I gave Jason’s parents a glimpse of how his deficits in maturity were a major cause of his trouble in college, and that they had taken years to accumulate. By now it was more clear to them that helping him do the growing he needed to do would take time. It would also require a series of positive experiences of engagement with life. Helping him find the drive to do what he had consistently avoided would have to start with external motivation, the focus of our next step.