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Dealing with grown children's failure to launch

  • Mark Falls for Voice.

Between adolescence and adulthood lies a sliver of time we've all lived through, when our youthful and sometimes reckless ways no longer seem appropriate but our minds can only regard things like responsibility, goals, work, mortgages, children and death as otherworldly concepts.

Like the middle child, "tweeners" (the ages between 18 and 25) are often overlooked. In our culture, the 18th birthday has traditionally been seen as a one-way launch into adulthood with, for some, a stopover in the relative safety of four or five years of college.

But what happens to those who fail to launch?

Talk to any parent who has lived through this time with their struggling tweener son or daughter and you will hear the inevitable stories of neighborhood barbecues when other parents dutifully report that their son started his freshman year at Cal, or that their daughter just accepted a position at Oracle, and then the happy group turns and inquires: "What's your son doing?"

In the past four years I have seen more tweeners and their parents in my practice than in all my 20 years as a clinical psychologist. The typical tweener profile is male (although females don't lag far behind in numbers), 19 to 23, living at home (again or still), no job, intentions to start classes at the JC, substance abuse, lonely (most friends have left for college or other adventures) and depressed.

He finds himself gripped with confusion and internal conflict about needing his parents, but at the same time hating them because they're needed. However, the crazy-making bind (being dependent on the very people you dislike) in the end indicates a good prognosis. Beware the tweener who is happy to lounge all day without psychological tumult.

At home, the hallmark feature, almost without exception, is a deteriorating relationship with parents. It is the parents 99 percent of the time who call to make the first appointment. If their tweener has seized between dependence and independence, the parents are likewise frozen between their innate drive to care for their child and the desire to get him/her launched. Knee-deep confusion mixed with guilt makes forward progress difficult.

So where to begin? First, the parent perspective. "I want the best for my child," needs a second look.

Once parents are able to accept that tweener parenting is a full-contact sport and begin steering their caring for the manchild/womanchild in a new direction, things start to happen. In a relatively short time, in most cases, caring comes to mean providing structure with timelines and consequences.

Just as a parent might tell a 6-year-old, "When the big hand is pointing to the 12, you need to have your clothes picked up or no TV tonight," the parent of a tweener might say: "My expectation is that you have a job in two months and that you have a place to move into three months after that. Failure to reach these goals will result in you not being permitted to continue to live here."

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