Foot on the Gas, Foot on the Brake

Helping Families Move Past Their Developmental Stalemates

Magazine Issue
September/October 2009
Foot on the Gas, Foot on the Brake

Stuart’s 19-year-old son returns home on probation from his first year in college, having failed one course in the fall and two in the spring. He admits to having missed classes because of his addiction to online poker, and is talking about changing his major from biology or premed to music, even though he gave up the clarinet in 10th grade and hasn’t studied an instrument since.

Carlos and Nicole’s 21-year-old daughter, having graduated from college, now spends her days listlessly lying around the house, watching TV, texting her former roommates, and slowly but steadily gaining weight. She’s chosen not to pursue employment or graduate school in her major (communications), but doesn’t display interest in new paths, insisting that she just needs “some time to get my head together.” However, it’s been more than six months of this, with no observable progress.

DeShawn and Sandra’s 23-year-old son, almost two years out of the Marines and now waiting tables at a local restaurant, informs his parents that his 19-year-old girlfriend is pregnant, and that while the two of them aren’t going to marry, they’ll be moving in together and won’t consider an abortion or an adoption placement for the baby. They enthusiastically lay out an unnervingly sketchy plan for supporting themselves and their new family while she finishes community college—a plan that appears to hinge greatly on DeShawn and Sandra’s regular availability for daycare, baby-sitting, and frequent financial subsidies.

I remember, back during the summer of my postdoctoral internship, spending hours transfixed as I read Jay Haley’s Leaving Home, a book about the complex developmental intricacies associated with successfully launching young adults toward self-sufficiency. Though much has changed over the years, Haley’s book taught me how much terror, anguish, dread, and grief is entailed in the process of leave-taking, not just in the rigid and dysfunctional families he described, but in any family. The differentiation process has universal elements, which families of every generation have faced and will continue to face.

Even so, the current generation of families is confronted with what appears to be a substantial upsurge in RYAs (reluctant young adults), who can’t seem to make the transition from home-centered adolescent to independent adult. That even Hollywood has latched on to this theme—in the movie Failure to Launch, the television series Arrested Development, and Will Farrell’s entire career—suggests that the current generation may be facing challenges that make it harder for young adults to leave the nest.

What accounts for these developmental stalemates? For one thing, present-day mothers and fathers have been so deeply involved in their children’s lives—creating an “optimal” prenatal environment, playing “Baby Einstein” tapes, volunteering in classrooms and for coaching teams, attempting to provide just the right mix of tutors, coaches, mentors, art teachers, music teachers, pediatricians, and therapists—that it can be more difficult to break free of the family’s gravitational field than in previous eras. Then, too, the proliferation of cell phones, wireless laptops, and assorted PDAs enables parents and young adults to keep in touch more or less constantly, at negligible cost. In fact, mothers and fathers can install global-positioning systems on their child’s car or cell phone, enabling them to track their kid’s movements 24 hours a day, or utilize cybermonitoring to gain access to all their children’s instant messages and e-mails, or visit school-sponsored websites that provide up-to-date information on tests, class participation, and homework assignments, completed or not. This perpetual electronic umbilical cord can prolong dependency, particularly when the young adult already feels insecure or unready to strike off on his or her own.

Also, a swelling generation of students is struggling with learning challenges, attentional deficits, and other psychoeducational problems. Currently, one in nine identified learning-disabled students graduates from high school and matriculates at a four-year college—up from one in 100 only 20 years ago. By 2003, almost 75 percent went on to some form of postsecondary education—up from 33 percent in 1987. Used to having their parents continually advocating for them in school, as well as getting the help of various tutors, coaches, and other supportive professionals, these RYAs are often unprepared to function independently outside their old cocoons.

Even the psychopharmacology revolution may have increased the numbers of RYAs. Many children and adolescents have undoubtedly been helped by psychotropic medications; nevertheless, young adults who’ve taken meds since early childhood and been told that they need these meds to function can lose faith in their inner abilities and capacity for drug-free independence. Such side effects are not only psychological: recent neurobiological research suggests that the regular use of psychostimulants may impair the functioning of the nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain associated with the motivation to act. When a rat’s nucleus accumbens is damaged, it’ll experience hunger, but won’t take the steps necessary for getting food. The drugs that many young adults have been taking for attention deficit disorders may actually be suppressing their neurobiological capacity for adult independence.

And then there’s the economy! The current recession, however long it lasts, will require many parents to underwrite their young adult’s autonomy.

All these realities make the process of separation and differentiation harder for both generations. So how, as family therapists, are we to position ourselves to be of assistance when confronted with RYAs?

Getting Beyond the Blame Game

When family development runs aground, resentment and hopelessness set in, and the process of assigning blame begins. The parents may blame their RYAs for “not taking responsibility,” for “not being motivated,” for being “oafish,” “lazy,” and “selfish.” RYAs may return the favor, faulting their parents for being “too controlling” or “unable to let go,” for appearing “stingy,” “unsupportive,” or “unloving.”

Paradoxically, previous consultations with clinicians and educators have often been unhelpful, but may have planted the seeds of mutually assigned culpability. The individual therapist the RYA saw in high school, for example, may have supported him in his beliefs that his parents’ rules and consequences were intrusive and draconian, absolving him of responsibility for the behavior eliciting those rules and consequences in the first place. Meanwhile, the RYA’s frustrated teachers might have insisted to the same parents that they “get more involved” and “start imposing consequences” on their son or daughter for poor grades and lousy attitudes.

In these cases, the clinician’s first job is to convince parents and young adults that nobody is to blame, but everybody must take responsibility. I try to help the family initially focus on what I call “developmental grief,” the mourning that’s a necessary part of leaving one stage of life behind so as to move on and embrace the next. To move toward adult self-reliance, RYAs need to bid farewell to childish traits and discover the advantages of growing up. I frequently tell struggling young adults that they won’t be able to leave until they’ve come to terms with all that they’re leaving behind.

To help their RYA move forward, parents must come to terms not only with their decreasing relevance as caretakers, but with the reality of impending mortality, which begins rolling unstoppably toward them. As they wander through the twilight of their child’s late adolescence, it becomes time, in Philip Roth’s words, “to worry about oblivion.”

From my perspective, families generally fall into one of three “categories”: Active Grievers, who acknowledge and talk about the change and loss embedded in this transition, allowing their grief to liberate them; Reluctant Grievers, aware of the impending loss and change, but hesitant to address it directly; and Avoidant Grievers, who fight off the realities of grief and thus impair their capacity to evolve.

Most families with RYAs will fall squarely in the avoidant-grieving or the reluctant-grieving groups, and our job as clinicians is to nudge them in the direction of active grieving. With this goal in mind, I’ll make sure that I’m subtly or explicitly peppering our therapeutic conversation with questions like the following.

For the RYAs:


  • What will you miss most about living at home when (not if ) you’ve left? and what will you be most relieved to leave behind?
  • Who in your family will have the most difficult time with your eventual departure?
  • What do you still want your parents to understand about you before you leave home and begin more independent living?
  • What are you doing right now that’s reassuring your parents that you’re ready for more independent living?
  • What are your parents and family doing right now that is reassuring you that they are ready for you to depart?
  • How would you like you and your parents to remind each other that you still love each other when you’re no longer living together?

For the parents of RYAs:


  • What would you have wanted your parents to understand about your leave-taking that you weren’t able to express at the time and that they were unable to take in (and still may not have)?
  • How will you want your young adult to address matters when she’s left home and finds herself feeling overwhelmed or demoralized? What role will you want to play, should that occur?
  • What are you doing right now that’s signifying to your child that you believe in his capacity to make it on his own? What are you doing that’s signifying the opposite?
  • What will be the most difficult aspect of your life, once your child leaves home? What are you doing to reassure your child that you and the remaining family members can manage well, or even better, in her absence?
  • What could your child be doing right now that would reassure you that he’s becoming ready for more independent living?
  • How will you and your child remind each other that you still love each other when you’re no longer living together?

I’ll initially try to point out that there’s a finite amount of “responsibility for growth” in any one family: the more responsibility the parents assume, the less the RYA will take on, and the less responsibility the parents assume, the more the RYA will take on.

To highlight this point, I’ll often ask families to work on a tripartite chart, noting in one column the responsibilities that are the RYA’s alone, in a second column those that are the parents’ alone, and in a third column the responsibilities that are still being shared between the generations. I’ll then ask them to complete the same chart as they would have done a year before, and a third chart, which details how they’d like it to look a year from now.

Usually, a reciprocal cycle becomes evident from this exercise, one in which the parents have been carrying more responsibility than they should, inadvertently discouraging the RYA from becoming more responsible, while the RYA has been eliciting this maladaptive parental overinvolvement with his or her underfunctioning. The parents, for example, might still be paying for the RYA’s car expenses and insurance, because he’s insisted that he needs a car to get a job; but, once he gets a job, he doesn’t squirrel away money for car expenses and insurance, squandering it instead on fast food, cigarettes, text-messaging, and the latest cell phone or PDA gadget. The parents threaten to withdraw their transportation subsidy, while the RYA counterthreatens by noting that, without a car, he’ll lose his job and have no income whatsoever, leaving each generation feeling that it’s being held hostage by the other. I’ll gently point out that there’s no observable beginning or end to this cycle. The issue is how each generation can reconfigure it by adjusting up or down its “responsibility quotient.”

Going over these charts, I’ll usually discover that there isn’t a tremendous amount of differance between the chart from a year ago and the chart from today—which enables me to point out the ways in which the family hasn’t really been evolving. I can then compare the present chart with the future chart, and we can discuss how we’re going to get from here to there, and how different things will be if they’re willing to make that journey.

Once I’ve begun the process of conjointly creating a new understanding of their predicament, and taken the edge off of their pattern of persistent finger-pointing, I’ll spend some time focusing on each generation specifically.

I’ll suggest to the RYA that every competent young adult I’ve ever worked with who’s trimming his sails, or taking them down altogether, has concluded, consciously or subconsciously, that it’s better to “fail to start” than to “start and fail.” The definition of anticipated failure is unique and will vary from individual to individual, but the need to protect oneself and one’s family from perceived failure is what keeps individuals stuck.

RYAs at first can rarely articulate their fears about becoming independent, but after having worked with hundreds of them over the years, I’ve noticed that these fears fall into one or more of the following categories:


  • A fear that she’ll disappoint herself by not meeting expectations for herself
  • A fear that he’ll disappoint others, such as his parents, by not meeting their expectations for him
  • A fear that she’ll become successful, but that she won’t be able to keep meeting the raised expectations that accompany success
  • A fear that independence means he’ll lose the opportunity and the legitimacy to express his lingering anger or dissatisfaction with his parents, and/or with how family life in general has unfolded
  • A fear that, by moving on, she’ll be giving up on realizing the fantasy of unconditional love and support that she’s sticking around still hoping to experience
  • A fear that he’s abandoning, betraying, or inappropriately usurping or supplanting someone important (a sibling, a parent, a birth parent if he’s an adoptee or foster child, etc.) by moving ahead with his life
  • A fear that she’ll no longer be taken care of, or feel entitled to be taken care of, if she becomes separate and autonomous
  • A fear that nobody will take over the role that he’s played in the family (mediator, jester, lightning rod, black sheep, etc.), and that the family will suffer as a result

I’ll point out that many of these fears result from the inability to strike an effective balance between loyalty to oneself and loyalty to others. For some RYAs, the challenge is to strike a new balance between a constructive loyalty to oneself versus becoming overly self-absorbed, unable to attend or respond to the realities of anyone else. For others, the challenge is maintaining a sense of loyalty without excessive self-sacrifice and without compromising one’s own ambitions so as to appease or gratify someone else, often someone in the family.

I’ll try to weave other demanding realities into my conversation with RYAs, both to emphasize the complexity of this stage of life, and to dissolve feelings of discouragement and demoralization:

Composing a Declaration of Inter-dependence. Young adults have to learn to navigate between being an “I” and a “we,” becoming independent enough to trust their inner instincts, resources, and reserves, while feeling they can turn to trusted family members for support, succor, and perspective without imperiling their independence. I’ll sometimes use the image of “loosening the border patrol,” noting how, during early and middle adolescence, teens will naturally reject what adults offer, even (and especially) when it’s meant to be supportive and helpful. They stop everything at the “border” because they’re struggling hard to build and bolster the fragile eggshell of their nascent identity, and taking in what others offer threatens to crack the shell.

To grow, I’ll suggest that the RYA has to learn to become less vigilant, and practice accepting what’s given without feeling that she’s surrendering her emerging selfhood; in fact, seeing these offerings as helping her can consolidate a sovereign sense of self.

Developing a Personal Philosophy. The RYA has to make more and more explicit the identity that he’s been discovering and sculpting during childhood and early to mid adolescence—from desire, wish, dream, and vision—which will be strong enough to carry the freight of his being forward. In this process, he must struggle with the collapse of certain beliefs, ideas, and concepts that helped stabilize him during the preceding years; he must come to terms with his own limitations while proving that he can stand up to pressure, pain, and unhappiness.

An important part of this transformation entails asking the right questions of oneself. Up until late adolescence, many of the questions teens ask have to do with others: “What image do I want to project to the world?” “Whom must I please or displease?” and “Whom must I differentiate from? and how can I do so without disadvantaging myself?” To chart a new, more self-reliant direction in young adulthood, I encourage a series of internal inquiries that are more self-directed than other-directed, operating in regions defined by queries such as, “Why do I do what I do?” “Who was I? who am I? and who do I want to become?” and “What do I feel called upon to do with my life?”—queries that can only be asked of and answered by the RYA, rather than by others.

Reevaluating Old Survival Tactics, Developing New Ones. All of us conceive and implement an arsenal of survival tactics that help us get through our childhood, and many of these will hold their value into young adulthood. But sometimes they lose their relevance, becoming vestigial or running counter to the achievement of essential goals and ambitions.

A 17-year-old patient of mine, for example, who during the first dozen years of his life had undergone numerous painful surgeries and recoveries for congenital skeletal malformations, had wisely developed a one-day-at-a-time outlook—exactly what was necessary to make it through endless and excruciating medical ordeals. But this outlook was now interfering with his capacity to plan for life beyond high school: he was so used to “being in the moment” that he’d never learned how to think ahead and begin mapping out his future life. Inviting him to find his “high beams” and look a little farther down the road while reassuring him that he could continue to depend on his “low beams” helped him acquire the confidence and security to begin creating a future for himself.

Contending with the Implications of Success as Well as Failure. Parents have generally spent a good deal of time warning their RYAs about the implications of failing—not doing well in school, not making good friendships, not participating in extracurricular activities—but little time encouraging them to think about the implications of success. After all, success brings its own thorny challenges, not all of which will be positive or easy to surmount.

One 18-year-old patient of mine, who was resisting getting her driver’s license despite her parents’ herculean efforts to mobilize her to do so, confessed privately to me, “Once I start driving on my own, I doubt that I’ll ever see my mom.” She went on to explain that family life was so busy that her car-time with her mother was the only time when she could depend on relatively undivided attention from her. From her perspective, the potential asset of more independence was outweighed by the potential loss of closeness with her mother, a relationship that she cherished and wasn’t ready to relinquish.

Converting the Nest to a Net

Many of us are well acquainted with parents of young adults who still awaken them and ensure that they get off to work or school, provide them with a generous weekly allowance that replaces or supplements earned income, do their laundry, cover discretionary expenses, or call their employer to explain an absence from work. These well-intentioned efforts invariably contribute to developmental paralysis, creating a tense but perversely reassuring Shangri-La, which can be difficult for both generations to resist. I’ll sometimes mention to parents the importance of creating, instead of a nest, a net—a relationship that allows them still to feel like a nurturing parent (providing a safety net against catastrophe as the RYA tries out his or her wings) while taking the hard steps of forcing him or her out of the nest. Asking parents whether their parenting decisions fall in the “net” versus the “nest” categories may help them distinguish between adaptive and maladaptive caregiving.

I’ll encourage parents to draw up some kind of bottom line and make it absolutely clear what they will and will not tolerate. When there’s extreme resistance to more grown-up behavior, it may be necessary to remind beleaguered parents that they’re no longer legally responsible for their RYA once he or she turns 18, and help them prepare to evict the RYA if basic levels of responsibility aren’t being met.

I’ll try to release parents from the self-imposed prison of their unmet expectations. All mothers and fathers have a vast matrix of hopes, dreams, and wishes for their children, many of which aren’t going to be gratified. They’ve spent many years harboring expectations of themselves as a certain kind of parent, who’d raise a certain kind of child. At the stage of departure, they must be prepared to release both their offspring and themselves from these unfulfilled expectations, rather than artificially prolonging childrearing with the irrational belief that perfection will one day be attained. They have to learn to accept who their young adult child actually is, rather than futilely yearn for who they might still want him to be. They have to love him not just in spite of, but because of, the ways in which he’s disillusioned them. And they have to learn to accept themselves for who they’ve been as parents, acknowledging the ways in which they did and didn’t make a positive difference in their family’s lives, giving voice to their legitimate sorrows and regrets without becoming assailed and overwhelmed by remorse.

Finally, I’ll encourage parents to think about retooling, pointing out that RYAs are much likelier to risk leaving home if they know that the family members they’re leaving behind will do okay without them. The more that mothers and fathers emphasize the person of the parent over the person as the parent, the freer the late adolescent is to weigh anchor and set sail. Parents can do this in many ways, from revivifying their marital relationship so that it no longer balances on the fulcrum of childrearing, to revisiting plans and activities that have been put off while their children have been growing up, to cultivating new interests and relationships, now that additional time and energy may—and should—be liberated.

In rereading my dog-eared copy of Haley’s Leaving Home, I realize that, while the nearly three decades since its publication have been characterized by extraordinary societal crisis, conflict, and growth, there remains a timelessness to every young adult’s struggle to establish a sense of individual selfhood separate from the family from which he or she emerged.

Brad Sachs

Brad Sachs, PhD, is a practicing family psychologist and the bestselling author of numerous books for both professional and general audiences.