Anxiety and “Failure to Launch”

Is your adult son a “man-child”?
My son just seems stuck, lost and directionless in life?
Is my kid suffering from a “Failure to launch”?
Why does my son or daughter have trouble growing up?

I can help.

What is “Failure to Launch syndrome”?

Let’s clear this up from the very start, “the failure to launch syndrome” is not a diagnosable mental health disorder. However we can understand and examine “failure to launch” from a psychological perspective and begin to effectively treat might be causing the problem. Let’s first describe what is commonly labelled the “failure to launch” syndrome or sometimes called the “Peter pan syndrome”.

“Failure to launch syndrome” or “Peter pan syndrome” is a label we use to describe a young person who is struggling and experiencing difficulties with the transition into adulthood. It’s often characterised by the young person’s perceived failures to live up to societal, social and personal expectations of independence, life skills, direction and low motivation. In the scientific literature it can be described as the difficulties and anxiety related to emerging adulthood. It observed typically around transitions in academic life (for e.g. high school and university transitions) and employment (for e.g. getting the first job, applying for the desired job)

Here are some of the symptoms that are often associated with “failure to launch”.

  • Low motivation
  • Poor persistence
  • Low frustration tolerance
  • High expectations of others without reciprocal efforts
  • Lack of life skills
  • Poor focus or clarity of purpose
  • Lack of direction
  • Excessive fear of rejection or failure
  • Inability to commit and take reasonable risks towards meaningful goals
  • Chronic procrastination
  • Poor priorisation skills and time management
  • Poor agreement with social expectations to pursue meaningful goals


From a psychologist’s point of view it’s clear that some of these symptoms could be a sign of an underlying depressive and/or anxiety disorder. If these symptoms are evident in the context of a major life stressor, adjustment disorder may also underlie the symptoms of a failure to launch. It’s a lot for parents and partners to look out for, so if you know someone who is clearly struggling with “failure to launch” symptoms you might benefit from an assessment from a psychologist for an opinion. Remember you don’t have to engage in treatment if you feel it won’t be a good fit.

From my experience, clients that reportedly have a “failure to launch” issue can have a diverse range of concerns: fear of social rejection, fear of failure, fear of losing all their potential (and therefore never trying), intolerance of challenge, strong self-imposed expectations or tough family demands. Any of these concerns might impede them from reaching their full potential, fear of taking reasonable risks, committing to decisions and choosing a life direction.

Often our own expectations of adulthood place unproductive pressure on loved ones. Our affected loved ones can respond poorly to our expectations by falling behind academically, failing to aim for appropriate career objectives, failing to meeting traditional milestones such as getting a driver’s licence, finding a partner, contributing to the household and finding a job.

Fortunately, these issues can be treated effectively with Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

For some, having these difficulties can contribute to more serious mental health risks such as increased risk to addiction to gaming, porn, gambling or substances. For others it might be the reverse, undiagnosed and untreated depression and anxiety disorders often look like a “failure to launch”. Those affected are often stigmatised as lazy and unsupported because an underlying mental illness is overlooked and untreated. In fact, the affected one might not even know and start to take to heart that their failure to launch is a deep and personal character weakness. Here’s a quick quiz that FtL might be a concern.

Is your adolescent/young adult:

  1. struggling to persist and manage at age-appropriate tasks such as university assignments?
  2. experiencing significant delays in developing a life-direction?
  3. demonstrating difficulty managing their emotions?
  4. struggling to handle academic, social and employment challenges?
  5. Overly concerned with avoiding failure and disengaging from challenge?
  6. Are these challenges impacting negatively in their ability to function?

If you’re a parent or concerned loved one, it is worth having a frank and honest conversation that you are observing that your affected loved one is struggling. Listen with an open heart and empathise with their situation and offer support (not judgement) to help them overcome their own barriers. In some cases, improving the parental relationship to a more supportive and non-judgemental one might be the answer. If you think they’re ready to consider changing their lives, there’s some great books in resource page that might help them reorient to reengaging in goal-directed efforts.

When should I seek help for “failure to launch”?

If you are struggling or know someone who feels stuck as they transition to adulthood (for e.g. leaving high school, university or employment) and it’s significantly impacting their quality of life, it might be beneficial to talk to a psychologist.

What causes failure to launch?

For some, “failure to launch” might be the label for undiagnosed depression and/or anxiety disorder. For others, it might be the underdevelopment of critical skills: management of stress as academic workloads increase, effective time management, strategies to deal with the feeling of being overwhelmed.

How do I treat failure to launch?

After a careful assessment, the first step is to diagnose and the treat mental health disorder (if present) with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. The next step is to develop specific strategies and mental skills to help the young person better cope with stress, engage in goal-directed actions and workload management.

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Luke Vu is a registered psychologist practising in Maroubra Junction, supporting those who struggle with substance and online addictions. Call me or send me a message today.