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 produce results. Plans, threats, promises, and strategies all fail. Tough love brings screaming conflict. Warm understanding is happily accepted but is unable to bring about change. YAs are sure they know what they need, but when they have it, there is still no improvement. Some are angry and uncooperative. Others acknowledge the issue, but see factors 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 pathway 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 enter is anything but comfortable and secure. Faced with a learned mistrust of stress and discomfort, too many teens and YAs learn that stepping away from full engagement with life is the answer. As we will see in the next chapter, the variety of challenges to avoid and ways to do so is infinite. Over time, habits of avoidance lead further away from the mainstream to a place where the pain, shame, and stress of catching up to peers are more than the young person is willing or able to face.
Help usually starts with a call from a parent, hoping that I, a therapist, 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 the caller’s young adult child, already addicted to comfort, face the level of stress needed to re-engage with life. 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, at the beginning, they will need to become the providers of external motivation needed to restart their young adult’s growth.
Jason’s mother (I have changed the name and details for confidentiality) called about her son, 19, who had had some trouble in college and seemed to be depressed. Yes, I could see him, but would she tell me a bit more, first? 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 a.m., 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 stepped into the office. 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 failed out of his first try at college, they found themselves fighting bitterly. Mary tried to compensate for John’s harshness with even more understanding, while John saw himself as countering her enabling by showing Jason a taste of 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. As shocking as it might seem, at this point in his life, Jason needed effective parenting more than ever.
To me, the parental conflict was actually a hopeful sign. They, unlike Jason, were already motivated to change. While each was doing what they believed was the right thing, they both agreed on the goal and were so desperate they were open to anything new. 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. I didn’t just want to hear about his difficulties and failures. I wanted even more to learn about his successes and strengths. Those would be the foundation on which we would need to build. 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, Mary explained with a nervous laugh. “All the kids seem to be doing that.”
In the spring of his sophomore year, he came home drunk and, at John’s insistence, was grounded for a month. John explained that his father had been alcoholic, and he definitely didn’t want to see that in his son. Jason 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, some of the kids in the neighborhood got awards. Mary noticed that Jason made a point of showing his disinterest.
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 monosyllabic. John and Mary didn’t know what to do, so they sent him back after the holiday, telling themselves that he might just be adjusting to college life. When he returned to school, Mary couldn’t sleep, she was so worried. John felt there wasn’t much he could do, and hoped his son would “man up and get it together.”
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. The dean had told them if he got a leave for medical reasons, his class failures would not go on his transcript, but he would need medical clearance before applying for readmission in the fall. They took him to Jason’s pediatrician, who diagnosed him with depression and gave them documentation for the medical leave, while prescribing an antidepressant for Jason. At first he felt better, but the treatment didn’t seem to change his motivation or help him feel more optimistic.
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 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, whileJohn, had a “man to man” talk with him and felt hopeful that Jason had learned his lesson.
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 for positions 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 would talk back angrily when his parents tried to speak with him, and always had a reason why the problem was out of his control. He told his mother his depression had gotten worse. That was 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 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 he was in. 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 that I, a professional, perhaps with a different medication or dose, would be able to give him a boost that would make him able to find success in the job hunt and experience the growth they both knew he needed. 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 did not seem to be an eager convert. He told them he didn’t want to follow his father, who went every day to a job he didn’t really like. Mary recalled that the few times Jason had tried hard to succeed at a challenge, he concluded that the results weren’t worth the effort. Most of what he knew about the adult world was negative. He had told her, “Why should I 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. He identified himself as genetically “lazy” and his goal was to avoid anything painful.
My tasks were daunting: 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 looked to Jason. Opening his parents’ eyes to the years of avoidance 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, 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 a reluctant individual to accept treatment for addiction. 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 that Mary had been weak in standing 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 was good for each of them and for the marriage. I suggested that we were again at such a crossroads, where working together would be a necessity. 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 YA.
Next, I needed to prepare John and Mary for the fact that the job ahead would be longer and harder than they had hoped. Psychological maturation and development are not naturally rapid processes. Think how long and arduous adolescence can be under the best of circumstances. The fact that Jason has been practicing avoidance since entering middle school means that, by this time, he is a pro. His well-practiced habits of fending off any kind of discomfort will work against us. His parents offered more details about his development.
When Jason was born, they lived in another state. From grammar school through fifth grade, Jason had had an easy time. He had little homework and what he did have was hardly a challenge. 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 moved. Things had been going well and they were able to afford a home of their own. John took on a more responsible position and Mary took a job to help make the mortgage payments. Jason had some trouble adjusting to middle school and Mary no longer had the time to make sure every assignment was done. He made some new friends, but didn’t take as well to the new teachers. In addition to having a different room for each class, they teachers 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 got average grades on tests because they were easy for him. When Mary came home from work, Jason had already let himself in, and would be watching TV. She would ask if he had homework, and he would always say he had done it in school. He showed some talent at drawing, but didn’t want to explore it further or take a class. That year, he didn’t show much enthusiasm or spark.
Through middle school, Jason seemed to develop a pattern of underperformance. He got above average grades, but everyone said he could do better. He would do his homework in a hurry and what he turned in wasn’t very good. He was often confused about assignments and keeping up with what he had to do was more than Mary could do. When she found out about work not done, she would sit with him till he finished, but more often she didn’t find out till the end of the marking period. At first, with Mary sitting with him, he would do the work and, when he finished would show her a smile. Over the next two years, he became adept at doing just enough so there weren’t complaints.
In high school, Jason made a few new friends, but they weren’t his parents’ favorites. He was beginning to show some adolescent rebelliousness and did not tell his mother about school work. If she asked, he snap back that he had done it, and to get off his back. That summer, his social life became more active. He seemed a bit happier. One day, he was acting strange and Mary confronted him. Eventually he admitted that he had smoked 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 his dad.
The next year, they put on pressure for Jason to enroll 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.
Now that I had Jason’s history, it was time to help them understand how his lack of motivation to engage with life was actually part of a pattern that had been building for years. Starting in middle school, when he first encountered 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 shown some enthusiasm about learning, he did well and got recognition for it, but immediately after, he claimed it meant nothing to him, 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 office manager job and failing to make sure he completed his assignments 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 really needs to be done. Her guilty feelings will have to be 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 diagnosis of depression. In our medically oriented culture, depression has come to be seen as a brain illness coming out of the blue, with no relationship to what is happening in the person’s life. It is too often 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 life events and their meaning to the person. 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 climb a mountain of stress to rejoin them. In other words, Jason’s depression could very well be a resultof what had happened in his life, rather than a cause.
I started the process of helping Mary accept that parenting is never perfect and that it would help everyone for her to let go of shame and self-criticism. 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 not to have 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 for everyone 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 purposefully avoided trying hard, he no longer felt the same hurt 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. He fell further behind his more successful peers. While his inner sense of shame and inadequacy increased, his ability to bury those emotions grew stronger. Looking honestly at himself had become 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 demands of work for pay was nearly as uncomfortable. How did he handle discomfort? His deeply entrenched pattern was to run the other way.
Adolescent Development: Five Critical Acquisitions
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 prefer to 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 their skills, they also learn to manage childlike impulses to skip the boring drills. 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. Professional athletes, for example, will keep playing at the highest level, even when loss seems inevitable. Being able to get over a bad test or not getting the part or a loss in sports is one of the most important acquisitions of YA 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. 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 another opportunity 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 hard 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 vague. Default decision making does not mature into firmly chosen pathways in life.
These five important acquisitions, impulse control, knowing oneself, resilience, deepening relationships, and ownership of personal values are a lot of what makes up the state we call maturity. To the extent that we achieve maturity, we are now ready to make full use of our strengths and cope with weaknesses. In general, college is a place where YAs 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 doesn’t happen only during the teen years. It can be acquired at any point in life. Films and literature are full of examples of personal growth during adulthood. The truth is that most of us carry pockets of immaturity. My experience as a therapist includes many instances of people gaining important missing pieces of maturity far into adulthood. 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 long series of uncomfortable but 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.