Failure to Launch, Part 2: How Adult Children Work the "Parent System"


Failure to Launch,  Part 2: How Adult Children Work the Parent System

If you, like many parents, have an adult child living at home with you, you’re not alone. There’s an epidemic of young adults in our society who are struggling to find their way. In many families, this works out finethe adult child is responsible and contributes to the household while they take some time to find their way (whether it's for economic reasons or something else) before going out on their own. But if your adult child has moved homeor never left—and expects you to take care of their needs,  you've probably started to feel resentful and frustrated.

In part 2 of their series on adult children, Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner explain why some kids choose to stay home instead of launching into the world. Kim and Marney are experts in the areas of parenting, child behavior problems, O.D.D. and substance abuse, and have worked with families for decades to help them resolve difficult issues. They are also the co–creators of Life Over the Influence, a new program that helps families with loved ones who are struggling with substance abuse issues. According to Kim and Marney, “We didn't write this series on young adult kids in order to judge parents: just because your child may not have launched successfully yet, doesn’t mean you’re a 'bad parent'—and it doesn’t mean they’ll be at home forever. There’s hope.”

“An adult child can actually make a career out of earning income from his parents by working the emotional system.”

Adam and Eve Never Registered at Babies ‘R Us

In the part 1 of this series on adult children living at home, we looked at how society has changed in its views and approaches to parenting. Over the past few generations, society has moved from caring for our children to caretaking—and many parents, for different reasons, find themselves solving problems for their children long into adulthood.

Related: Does your adult child rely on you to solve his or her problems?

How, exactly, did that happen? In today’s world, children are usually born out of emotional need. Couples, in love, want to share the bond of having a child and the joy they picture of becoming a family. Married couples with strong spiritual or religious beliefs may see having a child as part of God’s plan or as a spiritual experience to be shared as man and wife. Sometimes, teens or young adults think that having children is a rite of passage into adulthood. There’s often the belief that a child will love us unconditionally—and for those who’ve never really had that, a child can represent a powerful desire to experience such love. Sure, there are still accidental pregnancies, but in today’s modern world, the choice to give birth and parent, or adopt a child, is based on emotion. Think about it: there’s nothing logical about having a child. Yes, they can bring great joy, but there can also be great pain and frustration. Children are messy, it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to raise them, and parents often make great sacrifices to meet their child’s needs. We have children out of emotion and, more often than not, we tend to parent out of emotion.

We want our children to be happy, confident and secure. We hate to see them suffer, and many times will do anything we can to take that pain away. We would rather go through something painful ourselves than watch our children experience it. And, in fact, many of us remember our own childhood pain as we watch our children navigate their way in this world. That world can be hard and cruel: when our child comes home crying because no one would play with him at recess; when our child is called names on the playground or someone makes fun of how she looks; when our child hates school and cries every morning because his teacher just doesn’t seem to like him; when our teenage daughter sobs for weeks because her boyfriend broke up with her; when our daughter is devastated when middle school “mean girls” spread rumors about her. Most of us remember living through those experiences ourselves, and it’s heartbreaking to watch our child in emotional or physical pain.

As our child grows, we, as parents, start to develop certain emotional buttons. These are the emotions that tend to move us into caretaking mode. These emotions aren’t right or wrong; it just means they’re emotions you tend to feel strongly regarding your child. If you find yourself worrying about your child quite a bit, it’s likely you have a strong fear button: fear of anything negative happening to (or because of) your child. Fear your child will be hurt emotionally or physically, or hurt others; fear he/she will fail at school; fear regarding substance use or other dangerous activities your child may engage in; fear of a child becoming aggressive toward us or others. Other emotional buttons kids tend to push are related to hope (that this time our child will choose to do things differently and that things really will get better); anger; sympathy (allowing our child to avoid consequences or taking responsibility because we feel sorry for them in some way); exhaustion (being worn down to the point of just giving up); guilt (over things we’ve said or done as parents, opportunities we may not have been able to provide for our child due to financial or emotional reasons). Children learn, over time, what our emotional buttons are and how to work those buttons in certain situations.

Related: Is your adult child an expert at pushing your buttons?

Some of us have more than one emotional button that our child learns to push over the years; if we don’t become aware of these buttons, they will continue to work for our child into their own adulthood. Many adult children who are having difficulty “launching” have learned to rely on one or both parents as their source of financial support. The adult child still needs haircuts, clothes, gas money, a vehicle to drive, car and health insurance, medical services, a roof over their head and food to eat. There’s also cigarettes, make-up, movies to rent, games to play, cell phone and internet service. For many, add in the desire for alcohol and drugs. Where does the money come from when there’s no employment? The First National Parent Bank & Trust. Getting the parent to provide the money for these things becomes that adult child’s full time job. An adult child can actually make a career out of earning income from his parents by working the emotional system. They will visit the Parent ATM (PATM) frequently, using whatever emotional PIN number they’ve learned works to spit that money out of the cash slot.

Show Me The Money.

Meet Slug. Slug is 32 years old. He’s never held a job for more than a few months. He’s broken multiple leases, which his parents had to pay for as co-signers. Slug has been living at home for the past few years because he can’t find a job. Part of the problem is he won’t leave the house to put in any job applications. He looks online sometimes, but never follows through by calling a potential employer. He sleeps until the early afternoon, lays on the couch, eats his parents’ food and smokes all day—sometimes cigarettes; sometimes marijuana. Slug gets his PATM to spit out money by using the “Hope” PIN. He says he needs gas money to get to a job interview that never materializes into employment. He always has something “just ready to break,” an opportunity that’s going to pan out. There’s always a carrot at the end of the stick if his parents will just keep helping him a little bit longer. Then he’ll be independent. When that PIN doesn’t work, Slug starts pushing all the buttons on the PATM, eventually coming up with the “Anger” and “Exhaustion” PINS. He simply refuses to do anything until his parents hit a point of anger and eventually, out of frustration, give Slug what he wants rather than argue anymore.

Related: Do you suspect that your adult child has a substance abuse problem?

Meet Clueless. Clueless is a 24-year-old adult child living with his parents, and he’s also a Connoisseur of Colleges: he has been to four different universities in the past six years but is still only a Sophomore because he never completes the courses. Clueless really doesn’t know what he wants to do in life except smoke marijuana, play video games and text his friends. His parents have shelled out thousands of dollars supporting him in the lifestyle he would like to become accustomed to. When they try to shut down the PATM, Clueless uses the “Fear” PIN. He states he’s just going to sell drugs for a living or go live off the land. Or maybe he’ll crash his car into a tree. When his parents offer to take him to a therapist, he declines because he really doesn’t have a problem—the world does. Why should he have to work at a job every day if he doesn’t love it? Sometimes while he’s standing at the PATM, he finds his Fear PIN isn’t working, so he uses the “Hero” PIN. He tells his parents how much he appreciates all the support he’s been given, how much he wants to be like them and how badly he feels that he’s let them down. You can almost hear Bette Midler in the background, singing “Wind Beneath My Wings.” The problem is, Clueless isn’t a bird who wants to fly. In fact, he has no intention of ever leaving the nest.

Meet Carefree. Carefree is a 20-year-old adult child who lives with her parent, along with her three-year-old baby. Carefree still acts like a teenager. She leaves her baby at home with her parent while she goes out with friends. Sometimes she parties and stays out all night. She has a part-time job but never seems to have enough money to pay for bills. She does, however, have money for clothes, cigarettes and alcohol. Her parent pays for all her haircuts, daycare, the car she drives and the insurance. When Carefree’s parent tries to set boundaries or get her to take responsibility for her own life, Carefree uses the “Guilt” PIN. She reminds her parent how hard and lonely she had it growing up in a single-parent home, and how she used to have to care for her younger siblings, so she never really got to be a teenager. When that doesn’t work, she goes to the “Fear” PIN: Maybe she should just give her baby up for adoption, since she can’t take care of her—or better yet, let her ex-boyfriend have custody. Carefree’s parent, who adores the baby, gives in for fear of what could happen to her grandchild.

Related: Has marijuana taken over your child’s life?

Meet Clinger. Clinger never did well in school, never had many friends and in general just doesn’t seem to know how to cope with and make it in life. He’s not particularly difficult to live with, although his parent still does his laundry and cooks for him. He’s just extremely dependent—at the age of 22. Clinger’s parent responds to the “Sympathy” PIN, simply out of the belief that Clinger doesn’t have the intellect or ability to live independently. His parent is also terrified of what would happen to Clinger in the real world, which engages the Fear PIN. Clinger doesn’t even really know how to work the PATM – his parent works it for him.

Meet TNT. TNT is in his twenties and has never moved out of his parents’ home. As an oppositional and defiant teenager, TNT intimidated his parents every day with the Fear PIN. He yelled, broke things, raised his fist and was verbally abusive. His parents had to call the police a few times, but because he never actually crossed the line into violence, no charges were ever filed. Now that TNT is an adult, he still uses his anger to get his parents to do what he wants, and they walk on eggshells around him in their own home. His parents aren’t sure if TNT will one day become violent with them and are afraid to stop supporting him financially, ask him to leave or turn him loose on society.

You Are Not Alone.
Almost all of us go into parenting with good intentions. We don’t mean to fall into caretaking for our children, and neither did the parents above. It may surprise some parents, but the adult children described above really do exist…and more and more join their ranks each day. What do they all have in common? It’s more comfortable for them to rely on their parents to meet their needs than to take responsibility for their own lives.

These parents aren't terrible, and they're not alone. They love their children. Caretaking behavior sneaks up on us over time. Emotional buttons can become so strong that some parents are held hostage by feelings of fear, exhaustion and guilt. Many parents feel conflicting emotions: anger and frustration at an adult child’s attitude of entitlement, but fear of what will happen if that child is “cut off” financially. It can leave anyone in this situation feeling paralyzed.

This article, and our series on adult kids in Empowering Parents, is intended to help parents of take a step back, recognize which emotional buttons are being pushed and begin a healthy separation from that adult child who remains dependent. It’s a process and it can take some time. It’s important to understand how we got here, and why we stay “stuck” with our children in order to have the strength to move forward. Our next article will help parents in this situation get past these emotions, set boundaries and take the steps that will make your adult child uncomfortable enough in your home to become more independent. Remember, they can still launch—they just haven’t launched yet.

In their next article on Adult Children Living at Home, Kim and Marney will give you practical, concrete tips on how to help your child launch.

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About Kimberly Abraham LMSW and Marney Studaker-Cordner LMSW

Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues.

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