Failure to launch: it may be a 2006 Matthew McConaughey movie given one star by Roger Ebert, but more often, it’s the growing phenomenon of young adults not making the transition to adulthood.
In most Western countries, young adults are expected to leave the nest. And while they may need a finite amount of time to launch themselves, ultimately, the goal or everyone involved is to see the young adult fly on their own.
But when young adults stay at home, don’t search for a job or contribute financially, and begin to withdraw from the world, we have the foundation of failure to launch. Add unrealistic goals, blaming others for their situation, and a lack of motivation to change, and liftoff is almost sure to be grounded.
In the U.S., failure to launch is also known as Peter Pan syndrome, after the famous story of the boy who never grows up. In Japan, a more extreme but related condition is called hikikomori. Described as modern hermits, hikikomori generally withdraw from society before they hit their late twenties, and can remain in the bedroom equivalent of a remote mountaintop cave for years, if not decades.
No matter the culture or the label, failure to launch cases are mostly, but not all, young men. Numbers indicate the problem is increasing. Indeed, in 2014, over seven million American men ages 25-54 were neither working nor looking for work, up 25% from 10 years prior. And while the stereotype of a basement-dwelling man-child evokes labels of “loser,” “dropout,” or other unflattering descriptors, the phenomenon is more complicated than simplistic labels might indicate.
Why is this happening? Ask a dozen experts, and you’ll get a dozen answers: the economy, the number and kind of jobs available, an unwillingness to take on education debt that can’t be paid off by lower-level jobs, the decline of rites of passage to adulthood, or the falling frequency of marriage.
All these things may be keeping young adults at home, but the defining feature of failure to launch is foot dragging, delaying, stalling, or flat-out refusal to participate in life. While some young adults living at home are trying mightily to contribute financially or move out, Peter Pans have little intention of doing so.
I’ll leave reshaping the economy to others, but possible psychological reasons an adult child comes out of his room only to ask what’s for dinner? We can do that. Here are three reasons your Peter Pan may be retreating to Neverland:
Reason #1: Pathological Perfectionism
Peter Pans can put on a show of confidence while feeling deeply insecure. They’re often bright, articulate, and talk a good game while offering lots of reasons why they can’t move forward, from unfair professors to a–hole bosses. They may plan for the future, but goals are often grandiose like starting an industry-disrupting company, directing films, or launching a viral app, all of which could technically be done from somewhere besides a childhood bedroom.
In addition, Peter Pans often follow these dreams superficially, taking a class here or applying for an internship there, but generally remain dabblers.
Finally, some Peter Pans come across as slacker slobs while actually caring deeply about success and appearances. A Peter Pan you know may look like he gets his wardrobe from the bottom stratum of a lost and found and his hairstyle may be a dead ringer for James Franco in Pineapple Express, but deep down, he thinks he should be making six figures and driving a Tesla.
Why is this? From celebrity culture to #goals to billionaires in their twenties, the expectation of perfection is all around us. When cultural messages tell young people they’re supposed to be founding unicorn startups in their dorm room or at least living their best life, they may think there’s no viable alternative.
See also: How to Overcome Perfectionism
Now, the unflattering way to frame pathological perfectionism is to say that Peter Pans aren’t willing to work their way up—that they want to start out in the corner office and therefore turn down perfectly honest jobs they think are beneath them.
But another way to frame it is expectations gone awry. Kids grow up being told they can do anything, but when they inevitably run into obstacles, they might conclude the reason lies with them—that setbacks means they are a failure. Rather than continuing to struggle and take further hits to the ego, it’s easier to blame others. Once and future bosses are cast as ogres. People are described as annoying. Eventually, staying in a bedroom gets framed as freedom.
Regardless of whether you view it as a personal problem, a societal issue, or both, pathological perfectionism keeps many Peter Pans paralyzed yet comfortable. After all, it’s easier to dream big from the couch than to face potential failure in real life.
Reason #2: Emphasis on Safety and Security
Many Peter Pans have had comfy, privileged lives, while others have been through the ringer and never really got a childhood. Regardless of background, Peter Pans emphasize and value safety. But when we whittle down threats to our egos, there’s a trade-off, best summed up in the words of Dory in Finding Nemo: “Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.”
Moving into adulthood carries with it big changes and potential risks: getting and keeping a job, living independently, finding a relationship, creating a social life. There are thousands of ways to struggle.
Retreating from the world takes away these threats. It keeps us safe. Peter Pans get to avoid these challenges of growing up. But there’s a psychological trade off. Staying safe all the time sends the message that we are easily broken or damaged—in other words, weak. And when we think of ourselves as weak, we are prone to seeing ourselves as victims—of unfairness, of a hostile world, of demons from our past. It puts a barrier between us and a willingness to take age-appropriate risks. We stay stuck.
Reason #3: Video Games
Hear me out on this one: I know it’s not as simple as blaming video games for failure to launch. The relationship between video games and young men is complex and not quite understood by curious scientists, but when you spot a Peter Pan in the wild, his natural environment often includes video games.
To shed some light on this, let’s turn to a fascinating study in the journal Psychiatry Research that compared 19 young men and women who played World of Warcraft an average of 24 hours a week with 19 additional young men and women who didn’t play the game at all.
The researchers instructed the participants to play a computerized dice game and make as much fake money as possible. The odds and amounts of winning were clear. For instance, they might have been told they had a 1:6 chance of winning 1,000 Euros or a 4:6 chance of winning 100 Euros. Played strategically, players could make slow, steady, but pretty much guaranteed money, or they could take big risks and make bank or lose it all.
What happened? The World of Warcraft-heavy users consistently made what the researchers called “disadvantageous decisions.” They chose the riskiest alternatives significantly more frequently and the safest alternatives significantly less frequently than the non-WoW players.
In addition, the study found that frequent WoW players had more mental health problems than non-players. Anxiety, hostility, paranoia, interpersonal sensitivity—everything was worse in the World of Warcraft group except depression, which was equal in both.
The researchers noted that this mix was similar to what’s seen in pathological gambling and substance abuse. It’s important to note that it’s unclear if there’s an element of impulsivity or risk-taking that draws people to heavy use of video games, if extended video game use has an impact on those characteristics, or both. No matter, the researchers concluded that the World of Warcraft players had what they dubbed a “myopia for the future,” preferring to keep playing as their mental health and social life crumbled around them.
So what to do? If your adult child has recently upped his White Russian consumption a la The Dude in The Big Lebowski, here are 3 things to try. Especially before a marmot ends up in his bathtub:
Method #1: Question the Goals
If a Peter Pan thinks his only option is to make Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list, it’s easy to get paralyzed. And while it’s good to dream big and aim high, remind him that being an instant one percenter isn’t a minimum requirement. Getting VC funding isn’t the only way to achieve success, and completely optional when it comes to a meaningful life. Dare your Peter Pan to be average. Send the message that it’s okay to live a normal life.
Sometimes this lowers the pressure and creates room to move forward. However, sometimes lowering expectations can backfire. It can feel like pulling teeth to get them to enroll in one class, to encourage them to volunteer three hours a week, or to get out of bed before noon. Why? From their perspective, if they fail at the small things, what does that say about them? In a way, lowering the bar is threatening, because what if they can’t clear it?
Therefore, rather than lowering the bar within the same context, the answer is to change the context. Which brings us to…
Method #2: Stop Enabling
Peter Pans don’t exist in a vacuum. They live in a Neverland populated with people who unwittingly contribute to their stasis.
Being a Peter Pan is a pretty sweet deal. It’s safe and comfortable. And who wants to leap from safety and comfort into the unknown, where the only guarantee is eating a lot of microwave ramen? At home, Peter Pan doesn’t have to think about how he will support himself and where he will live. He outsources that responsibility to others who accept it. They may accept it begrudgingly or resentfully, but they accept it nonetheless. Therefore, there’s no incentive, other than salvaging his self-esteem, for Peter Pan to change the situation.
How to change this? The most effective option is to stop funding Peter Pan’s expenses. Charge for rent, food, utilities, or all of the above. Set a move out date. Of course, don’t do these things without warning. Talk with your Peter Pan about why you’re doing this and hold firm. Be a broken record when they protest. Agree with him when he says it’s his life; but make clear he needs to start contributing to it.
What about snags? What if Peter Pan is struggling with mental illness? This complicates matters, but keep in mind that the vast majority of people with anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses hold jobs and manage their lives.
Next, what if it doesn’t work? If your Peter Pan clearly understood the agreement, is a few months into non-payment, and still isn’t willing to make a change, up the ante and arrange for a humane eviction. You’re not hiring goons to throw his stuff on the sidewalk. Instead, give him a timeline and set a moving day a few weeks away. Rent a storage space and arrange to have his stuff taken there on the appointed day. Hopefully, he’ll come to his senses and make other arrangements before the deadline, but if not, he’ll couch-hop until that gets old. If that sounds harsh, it brings us to…
Method #3: Play the Long Game
When you shake things up, there will probably be a big reaction—maybe anger, maybe guilt, maybe blaming you, maybe some temporary rejection—but remember, you’re playing a long game.
Changing the game is hard. A lot of parents worry their Peter Pan will hate them if they insist on increased financial responsibility or set a move out date. And he might at first. He will try to prove to you how mean you are and how much you are hurting him. But remember the marmot that gets thrown in The Dude’s bath—it flails and makes a big fuss, but ultimately lands on its feet. And that is the goal. Keep your eye on the horizon.
So when an adult child stays glued to the couch, it’s time to change the game. Make it clear that life can be lived outside a childhood bedroom. Just like the human immune system goes haywire in an environment that’s too clean, developing brains can’t mature in an environment that’s too safe. We all need to be exposed to age-appropriate stressors and challenges in order to become strong, capable adults. You may have to wait a few months or even a few years after he leaves the nest, but eventually, your Peter Pan will likely thank you.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.