Many young adults find the rites of passage into adulthood exciting and something to look forward to. For example, they may look forward to the prospect of passing Grade 12 and moving on to tertiary education, upping their level of independence. However, most young people still need support of one kind or another in their transition into adulthood. Today, children who live with parents well into their twenties are a fairly common phenomenon in South Africa as South African students generally do their tertiary education locally and live at home until they have graduated. Some young adults continue living at home while they launch their careers. This is likely because it makes financial sense. However, in some instances teenagers moving into adulthood doubt their capacity to make it on their own in the world.  


Failure to launch 

“Failure to launch” has become a common term to describe young adults who struggle with the journey to independence. It describes an extended interval in the typical developmental process of young people transitioning into adulthood. According to traditional research, the most important markers of reaching adulthood are finishing school, being employed full-time, moving out of the parental home, forming a full-time partnership, or getting married, and having children. This transition generally occurs between 18-29 and sometimes in adults 30 years old and beyond. 


The following are eight symptoms associated with failure to launch: 

  • An inability to reach developmental milestones at the same rate as their peers, such as learning to drive or settling on a career path.  
  • Failure to take responsibility – or struggling with adult responsibilities. 
  • Poor levels of motivation in moving toward education or career goals. 
  • Withdrawal or increased isolation, participating less and less in life. 
  • Difficulty planning or considering the logistics of financial independence. 
  • Lack of basic life skills needed for adulthood.  
  • Occasional emotional outbursts. 
  • Mediocre work ethic. 
  • Lack of persistence. 
  • Difficulty managing stress. 


Three common causes for failure to launch are:  

1. Helicopter parenting 

Overprotective parents tend to raise children who display a lack of self-sufficiency. So do those who continually intervene in their children’s lives and do things for their teenage children that they are more than capable of doing themselves. This micromanagement has given rise to the term “helicopter parent.”  Being a helicopter parent can negatively impact children’s ability to learn to become independent.  

Here are eight common signs of helicopter parenting: 

  • Being overly involved in all areas of a child’s life, including academics, recreational activities and friendships.  
  • Doing tasks for children, such as chores and homework, rather than supporting their independence.  
  • Making decisions for children, such as what extracurriculars to join or which college to attend 
  • Constantly correcting children rather than letting them make mistakes 
  • Protecting children from experiencing disappointment or failure 
  • Stepping in when children experience conflict rather than allowing them to resolve their own problems 
  • Not allowing children to participate in age-appropriate activities 
  • Debilitating anxiety about children failing or getting hurt 


2. Personal factors 

Perfectionism and the self-instilled pressure to be perfect can incapacitate teens and young adults, preventing them from taking the necessary steps toward being independent. This can hold them back from trying things out in case they fail and typically plays out in a reluctance to start something or complete avoidance of certain situations. This fear of failure can particularly overtake teenagers who lack the ability to regulate emotions and problem-solve. In some teens their fear of failure can translate into signs of anxiety or stress, such as sleep disturbances, changes in appetite or irritability. 


3. Mental illness 

Failure to launch” syndrome is not a mental health diagnosis, but it frequently indicates an underlying mental health struggle. For example, mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD – or conditions like addiction – can affect a young person’s transition into adulthood. For some young adults conditions like autism and ADHD can worsen failure to launch syndrome. For them, leaving the safety of home is cripplingly scary and much as they may desire to be independent, their mental health keeps them living with their parents.   


10 steps for helping your teenager transition from adolescence to adulthood 

Adolescence – between the ages 11 to 20 – lays the foundation for the adult your child will become. For a seamless transition into adulthood, it is necessary for parents to guide their children through the turbulent years of adolescence. There are many steps that can be taken to help your teenagers transition into happy and fulfilled adults.   

Here are 10 helpful steps in supporting your adolescent children: 

  1. Work on maintaining a good parent-child relationship.
    Children who have a loving and supportive relationship with their parents, based on mutual trust and respect, will largely choose to do as they have been asked and take guidance from their parents. 
  2. Do not treat your adolescent as if they are a child.
    Give your children the latitude they need to learn how to do things for themselves, make their own decisions and form their own opinions. Within reason, allow them to make mistakes. Adjust their role in the family so that it remains appropriate as they become more mature and capable. 
  3. Trust them and give them space.
    Be understanding and try not to over-parent or force your teenager to partake in everything the family does. Independence is necessary to your child’s development. 
  4. Keep the lines of communication open.
    Be clear about what you expect from your teens such as acceptable behaviour or good grades. If your child wants something, or in times of disagreement, actively listen when your child talks and allow them to express their standpoint or opinion. When it is your turn to talk, be assertive, if necessary, but talk to them without talking down to them or lecturing unnecessarily. Do not lash out in frustration or anger. 
  5. Respect your child’s uniqueness.
    Each of your children will be unique and respond differently to being parented. Embrace their differences and encourage them to be themselves. Time spent trying to mold your children into your vision of the model child will only end in frustration and resentment.
  6. Regularly affirm them.
    Always tell your teenagers they are amazing. This helps them develop self-confidence, which is critical to self-worth as they grow older. In their teenage years, which can be riddled with self-doubt, hearing positive affirmations from you will go a long way in maintaining their self-worth.
  7. Expand their world.
    Adolescence is a great time for broadening your children’s horizons. Encourage your teenagers to explore all their interests and try out activities they are curious about. If you can, visit new places to provide new experiences. These can be local to your area. Your teens will benefit immensely from exposure to different activities, people and places, allowing them to develop into a well-rounded adult.  
  8. Be a strong role model.
    Effective parenting requires self-control and responsible behavior on parents’ part, whether they are parenting a child or adolescent. Teach your child your family’s values and set a good example by conducting your life in the same way that you would like your children to conduct theirs. Kids will always remember what you did more than what you said.  
  9. Lighten up and show your authentic self.
    Children love it when their parents lighten up and see the funny side of things. Be willing to admit when you are wrong – and to laugh at yourself when you mess up. Laugh along with your child – but do laugh at them in a way that will embarrass them or make them feel small.  
  10. Check your own attitude.
    Children learn by watching and mimicking behaviour.
    If your adolescent is being bad mannered or displaying a bad attitude, it could be that your behaviour is at the root. Whenever you would like to see an improvement in your child’s attitude or behavior, first look at your own. Your child might be following in your footsteps.  


One of the most important things the parents of adolescent children can do is have their own personal lives. This will mitigate the need to arrange your whole life around your adult children. It acknowledges that they are adults and can take care of themselves – and it will encourage them and be a role model for how to be the balanced parent of adolescent children.  So, do not put your priorities and own self-care on the back burner – take care to live the life you want to live. 

Over to you for sharing your comments and experiences.

About the Author: Kerstin Jatho

Kerstin is the senior transformational coach and team development facilitator for 4Seeds Consulting. She is also the author of Growing Butterfly Wings, a book on applying positive psychology principles during a lengthy recovery. Her passion is to develop people-centred organisations where people thrive and achieve their potential in the workplace. You can find Kerstin on LinkedIn, Soundcloud, YouTube and Facebook.

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