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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Dimitrion, LCSW, CST

Peeling Back the Layers of Narcissism Part 10: Recontextualizing the Concept of Failure-to-Launch

We're all familiar with the trope of the 40-year-old single, unemployed male residing in his parents’ basement for the past 20 years. His days are consumed by online activities or gaming, emerging only for basic needs like food or bathroom breaks. Social interactions are limited to his Discord circle. Despite parental disapproval, they've exhausted efforts to push him towards independence. "Failure-to-launch" is the label for such adult children who struggle to establish self-sustaining lives. However, this definition might be overly broad. Not every unemployed, adult child living with their parents merits condemnation as a "failure" or being "off-track". According to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, one in three adults still lives with parents, reflecting the challenging employment landscape, especially for college graduates. The increasing gap between base salary and living costs in urban areas further complicates the situation. Many find themselves returning to their childhood homes, saving diligently to take flight. Yet, this narrative isn't about those striving for independence. It's about another subset: adult children content to remain nest-bound, displaying minimal inclination for autonomy unless it suits their convenience. I'd label these individuals not as "failure-to-launch" but rather as "refusing-to-launch".

Adult children who refuse-to-launch can exhibit standard narcissistic tendencies such as grandiosity, self-involvement, entitlement, and lack of empathy. Their dismissive and self-aggrandizing behavior can mask fears of failure, leading to avoidance of challenging situations or endeavors that might threaten their fragile sense of self. This aversion to risk-taking can impede progress and contribute to a sense of stagnation, reinforcing patterns of dependency and entitlement.

Many adult children who refuse-to-launch are reluctant to accept parent guidance and are highly sensitive to criticism or attempts to establish reasonable expectations. Those leaning toward vulnerable narcissism may display symptoms such as depression, overt insecurity, suicidal ideation, or physical ailments. They often cite their mental, emotional, and physical health as barriers to assuming responsibility, while rejecting any support aimed at addressing their issues. 

As with all narcissists, adult children who refuse to launch may exhibit temperamental and easily agitated behavior. They might employ tactics like triangulating parents to evade accountability and retain control. Consequently, many parents feel powerless to alter the dysfunctional family dynamics and inadvertently enable their adult child's behavior in a bid to sidestep confrontation.

So how do parents navigate this tricky dynamic? Below are some considerations:

·         If your child is truly refusing-to-launch, they are likely not going to be proactive in changing their circumstances unless their current circumstances are no longer serving them. Enabling their continued behavior will reinforce their power within the family system and ultimate ability to remain in the status quo.

·         If you decide to set firmer limits with your child, start small and make it a change that you can easily take charge of rather than a limit that relies predominately on your child for follow through. Example 1: if you regularly bring your child’s meals to their room, have them pick their meals up in the kitchen instead. Example 2: If you do their laundry, have them bring the laundry to the laundry area instead of going into their room to pick it up.

·         If they express mental health or physical concerns take them seriously, but don’t take full responsibility for their health care needs. Instead offer to sit down with them to find a therapist, a doctor, a gym, etc. Collaborate with them to identify a set time/day to search. If they dismiss or postpone your invitation to work together don’t take their ambivalence—or outright unwillingness—personally. Instead, reiterate the fact that they can call their health insurance carrier to identify providers who are in-network. Remind them of 911 for immediate mental health or medical emergencies and 988 for mental health crises and suicidal thoughts. If you are imminently concerned for your child’s safety (i.e. they express suicidal threats or are self-harming) you can always call 911 even if they are not onboard and help will be on the way.

·         Take care of yourself! Finding a therapist who is well versed in narcissism can be a lifesaver when you’re feeling isolated with your concerns. They can help you process the struggles you are having with your child and explore new ways of coping with the situation at home.

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