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Failure to Launch Syndrome

Call it failure to launch, Peter Pan syndrome, or hikikomori, it’s the phenomenon of adult children not making the transition to adulthood. The Savvy Psychologist, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, explores why Peter Pans stay on the launchpad—plus, 3 ways to encourage liftoff.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
8-minute read
Episode #239

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.

See also: How to Cut the Financial Cord with Adult Children

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:

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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.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.