A CONVERSATION WITH MARK McCONVILLE
It used to be that, when kids hit 18 (or 21 at the latest), they’d be out of the house and off your hands. But these days, instead of flying solo from the moment they’re officially adults, young people seem to be hanging on in the parental nest ad infinitum …
How come kids aren’t launching into the big wide world with excitement and enthusiasm – like they did in times past? How come they’re taking longer and longer to grasp the seemingly-impossible skills of ‘adulting’ (as they call it)?
For answers, we turned to Dr Mark McConville, clinical psychologist and author of ‘Failure to Launch: Why Your Twenty-Something Hasn’t Grown Up … And What to Do About It’. With over three decades of professional experience in ‘adult, adolescent, emerging adult, and family psychology’, Dr. McConville has a rare insight into the phenomenon of troubled transitions into grown-up-ness …
GRAPEVINE: What motivated you to write ‘Failure to Launch’?
MARK McCONVILLE: Around the turn of the century, my colleagues and I began getting more and more of these 20-somethings referred to us. They didn’t show up owning their issues, ready to share their concerns, as you’d expect young adults to do. Instead, they were there at their parents’ insistence – often as a condition of their continued support!
I’ve spent my career working with adolescents and their families … as well as doing a lot of teaching, writing, and educating therapists about that age group. And it struck me that with so many of these young adults it was much more like working with an adolescent.
Treating these 20-somethings according to their chronological age (which is the mainstream clinical approach) led to a sort of merry-go-round, where we’d have all these interesting, rewarding conversations in our therapy sessions, but six or eight months later we hadn’t moved forward.
Throughout my career I’ve used journaling to solve clinical problems, and in my journaling – in my puzzling and wondering and trying to figure out what to do with this or that case – I began to see the patterns, and I realised that I need to involve parents in the process.
GV: Why is this ‘failure to launch’ happening with our young people? What’s changed? What’s gone wrong?
MARK: There are a number of reasons why this is happening. First of all, the world’s changed dramatically from how it was during the baby-boom generation and earlier. We’ve moved from a manufacturing economy to a service-and technology-oriented economy, and you need more education these days to gain a foothold in the world of adult work.
When I graduated from high school, I could’ve got a job in a steel mill or something. I could’ve been making a living wage by the time I was 19, bought my first car at 20, put a down-payment on a house by the time I was 22 or 23 … But none of those things are possible today. Today you need more education – which means you need money (usually provided or supplemented by your parents) and more time. And because it’s harder to become financially independent now, kids today necessarily remain dependent for longer.
Another part of the puzzle is that parenting has changed dramatically in the decades since the cultural revolution of the 1960s. With the availability of the birth-control pill, we have more choice about when to have kids (or even if we have kids) and how many kids we’d like to have. So there’s more emotional investment in children. Parents today want to have a relationship with their kids, and they get very distressed if they lose that connection – if their teenager starts to rebel.
When I was growing up, my father just wanted to see me equipped for the world. He wasn’t interested in being my friend or in knowing what I was thinking about! But we’ve got a generation of kids today (and within the past 20 years or so) who are more supported and more invested-in than any previous generation!
There are many positives to that. However, the flip side is that lots of these kids face much higher levels of anxiety when that support starts to fade and they face going out into the real world. It’s at this point of transition from the world of high school to the beginning of early adulthood that many kids lose their confidence.
They’re terrified … because they really have no idea what to expect and how they’re going to meet the expectations (real or imagined) of the world!
GV: You talk about these kids being stuck in adolescence – like they’re suffering from a case of arrested development, and don’t seem to be making any headway towards the goal of being ‘grown up’. But just to clarify: when we talk about ‘growing up’, what does this actually mean? And what skills does this process require?
MARK: Forty years ago (the era of my own coming-of-age), being an adult was defined by certain benchmarks. Turning 21 meant you could now vote and buy alcohol. Many people were married in their early twenties – I was married at 22, as were many of my peers. We were expected to regard ourselves as adults and to conform to those behavioural expectations.
When I look back on it, I certainly didn’t feel like an adult – although I wouldn’t have admitted that! Nevertheless, in those days there were events that officially established our status as adults: university, career, marriage, children, etc. Today that’s all changed.
People today are getting married later … having kids later … and even settling on a career-path far later in life (at around age 30) – so the whole business of growing up is a much more subjective, identity-based process than it used to be.
Jeffrey Arnett, a leading researcher on the subject of emerging adulthood, has surveyed tens of thousands of young adults around the world – and what he’s discovered is that it’s not until age 26½ that HALF of them feel like an adult HALF of the time! I just love that – because it’s so accurate!
It’s such a common experience when you’re a young adult to feel like a fraud – like people think you’re an adult for some reason, but you feel like an imposter! Turns out (according to Arnett’s research) that it’s often not until our late 20s that we start to feel like an adult ‘most of the time’. And I’d like to point out that you never get there all of the time – nor would you want to!
But as a therapist, I began to ask myself: What are the issues we’re working on in therapy that are common to most of these 20-somethings?
GV: And what did you discover?
MARK: Well, one of the things we spend time and energy trying to make progress on is TAKING OWNERSHIP OF YOUR LIFE – like, “This is about ME, and it’s time for me to stop fighting with my parents, to stop complaining about my job. I’m the executive here!”
With struggling transitioners – who’ve stalled in moving from adolescence to adulthood – we’re seeing a real difficulty in managing their lives and dealing with even the mundane everyday details. We’re seeing refusal when it comes to a simple task, like rescheduling an appointment. This seems mysterious to fully-fledged adults, like “Why do I need to keep nagging and reminding? And she still hasn’t done it! What’s the big deal?” – but at the root of it is a sense of anxiety and uncertainty.
One client I had was delaying making a phonecall to reschedule the dentist, and he finally admitted, “I’m afraid they’re going to yell at me!” In reality, that’s never going to happen – but he’s got this sort of child’s notion about disappointing an adult, and the emotional consequences of doing so. Being 20 years old, though, he doesn’t want to admit that to anyone – so he just puts it off and puts it off while his parents get more and more frustrated: “Why can’t he tackle such a simple task?”
There are plenty of things like that, which just have a little tinge of embarrassment and shame – because who in their early 20s really has any idea how the world really works? They have this sense of, “I should know this stuff, but I really don’t …”
It’s easy for parents to forget how uncertain and out-of-their-depth they felt as young adults – but I had an experience a few years ago that really brought it back to me. I’d been invited to teach in Slovenia, and at some point during my visit I needed to go to the bank …
After following the directions I’d been given to get there, I walked in – and it didn’t look like any bank I’d been to in my life. I had no idea where I was supposed to go … who I was supposed to talk to … or how I was supposed to conduct my transaction. I was mortified!
I flashed back to being 20 and having no idea what to do (along with this uncomfortable sensation of, “… but I’m supposed to know what to do!”). Here I was, 60 years old, and I was standing there feeling like a kid!
That’s what happens to these young people. And I have a lot of empathy for what they’re experiencing, and how daunting the adult world seems.
GV: So what are the ‘adulting’ skills that these kids need help to develop?
MARK: They need to become responsible … relational … and relevant.
First of all, they need to step up and be RESPONSIBLE – they have to own their choices, and become managers and directors of their own lives. There’s a profound sense of responsibility that shows up in little things (not just in big moments involving major life decisions) like making a call to the dentist. It’s not that they don’t know how to make a simple phonecall – it’s that they don’t know how to make a phonecall as an adult!
Some kids lack the confidence that comes from self-supervision. They might be ‘A’ students, and very successful in their various extracurricular endeavours, but for many of them, their success can be attributed (at least in part) to their parents’ involvement.
You can take two kids graduating at the same time: one’s a ‘C’ student (with average grades) but he’s really the executive of his academic life; he owns it, he runs it … and the other’s an ‘A’ student, who’s more talented but who hasn’t taken on that sense of ownership (like, “This is MY life!”) That first kid is a better bet in university than the second one. They may not excel, but they’ll be competent; they know how to manage their schedule and keep a calendar to hand assignments in on time, and they’ll complete their course.
So it’s that executive functioning that makes the difference, and it’s key to developing a mature sense of responsibility.
GV: So, having developed responsibility, we then need to help them become RELATIONAL. Is this more of a challenge for young men?
MARK: Yes. Because they seem to feel that they must be totally and completely independent and do everything entirely on their own. They’re afraid to get help from someone else in case it compromises the whole process of them ‘becoming a man’. That’s a culturally-embedded belief – but it’s not healthy.
When it comes to being a grown-up, neither total dependence nor total independence is healthy. What they need to strive for is interdependence …
If you’re an expert at something (or more experienced than me), I should be willing to approach you for help and advice on that subject. An inexperienced 20-something needs to ask questions and seek information from others:
- “How do I apply for a credit card?” – ask someone who’s done it before!
- “I’ve never signed a lease before … what should I be aware of?” – try asking your parents or even older siblings!
This seemingly simple act of turning to another person for support is absolutely critical for growing up.
The last chapter of my book is an open letter to struggling transitioners. And I say:
“Luke Skywalker had Obi-Wan Kenobi … Frodo Baggins had Gandalf … nobody does it on their own!” It’s important to find mentors and peers you can bond with, share genuine conversations with, and commiserate with over your anxiety about job interviews and other rites-of-passage.
The final stage of that relational maturing is starting to see your parents differently. Instead of viewing them as these all-powerful judges you must petition for finances or other needs, you begin to see them as people – and, at the same time, they begin to see you as more of a whole person, rather than just their child.
We call this horizontalising, where the parent moves from ‘supervisor’ to ‘consultant’ in their child’s life. And when this happens, it helps to confirm to the transitioner that they are not a child.
In almost all the cases I see, the unspoken ground rules that govern the parent-child relationship haven’t been re-negotiated – and they should be!
If you’ve got a really immature 21-year-old who’s planning to move to the city to launch a career in music and you as parents are trying to talk him out of it, questioning if he knows what he’s doing, etc – I’d ask you this: “Why does it need to be YOUR responsibility to learn the impracticalities of this move?” You’re getting in the way of him figuring this out for himself. What you need to say to him is, “We hope you can pull this off. Let’s know if we can help you with the rental process or anything. But we’re not going to step across the line and try to solve this for you, because that turns you back into an adolescent …”
Even if your 21-year-old son is behaving like an adolescent, that doesn’t mean you have to treat him like one! If your daughter’s moved out and you’re sending her minimal financial support, and every week she tries to manipulate you out of more money, stop lecturing her about it! You might try teaching a teenager the value of money – but with a young adult, you need to say, “Well, your usual cheque’s coming on Sunday … so good luck!”
GV: Okay. Becoming relational means developing interdependence and horizontalising the parent-child relationship. But how does a young adult become RELEVANT?
MARK: Relevance is the hardest skill to define. But when you sit down with a young adult who’s mastering this skill, you immediately sense that they’re heading somewhere … that they’re doing something to prepare for the future. They may not yet know where they’ll end up – they don’t need to know – but they do need to be on that wagon-train that’s going in a certain direction. And if you ask them, “What would you like to be doing by the time you’re 30?” they may have no idea, but they won’t think of it as a hostile question.
If, on the other hand, you’ve got a 21-year-old who’s in an apartment with four friends, and they sit playing Fortnite for six hours every evening and go off to minimum-wage jobs during the day … there’s not much future in that. And we need to try and help them ask questions like, “Do I feel like I’m relevant to the adult world? Could I have a place in that world?”
The challenge we often have with these particular transitioners is that they don’t really have a sense of hopefulness. They feel they’re in this sort of murky, slippery, dark space where they can’t get a solid foothold.
CAMPFIRE IN THE CAVE
So to help them develop relevance we need to identify the small ember of interest or passion that they’ve sort of hidden from view – I call it the ‘campfire in the cave’ – and fan the flames to help give them a sense of purpose that can then translate into some more general direction for their lives.
GV: How might parents sometimes unintentionally hinder their kid’s transition to adulthood?
MARK: There are two mistaken assumptions that parents often make with a struggling transitioner – and they’re at opposite ends of the spectrum: one is the mistake of assuming sole responsibility and allowing guilt to get in the way of parenting … and the other is failing to take any responsibility at all.
It’s normal for parents to feel personally responsible for their kids’ choices, and guilty about their child’s failures. Some parents handle that guilt better than others. I remember being mad at my mum when I was about 15, and saying to her, “I’ll never do this to my children – I’ll never make these mistakes!” And she gently replied, “You’re right – you won’t make these mistakes. You’ll make your own ones!”
Some parents admit their mistakes and still say, “I was wrong and I’m sorry – but here’s what I expect of you …” But when parents get really absorbed in their guilt they can easily fail to call their kids on things, set limits to their support, or maintain clear expectations. They don’t hold their kids accountable, because they feel that ultimately they bear the responsibility. In that case guilt gets in the way of good judgment.
It’s important to own our mistakes and admit to our past failings – but there’s a more important question: Is our parenting TODAY somehow a part of the problem? Because when parents are able to identify what they’re currently doing with their kids that isn’t helpful and how they need to make adjustments … it shifts them away from the powerlessness they’ve felt as they’ve watched their kid making unhelpful choices.
GV: What’s the difference between supporting a struggling young adult and enabling them as they try to navigate the passage to adulthood?
MARK: Well, from the parenting standpoint, it’s the same thing. It’s like this: Let’s say a down-and-out woman approaches me and asks for $10 … If I give her money and she goes into the shop and buys some baby-formula, then I’ve been supportive of her. I’ve done something helpful; I gave her something she needed, and she used it in a constructive way. But if I give her the money and she heads straight to the liquor aisle, and I see her buying some high-potency wine – then I’ve enabled her.
So the difference between supporting and enabling isn’t really on the parents’ end; it’s really the response of the child – what they do with what they’re given – that determines which it is. The problem is, once parents discover that what they’re doing is enabling their child, they feel trapped … and extracting yourself from the enabling trap is a tricky business.
I recommend that parents do this step-by-step, introducing the kid to reality gradually.
It’s not a case of ‘tough love’ where you just say, “Pack your bags and leave!” You don’t need to be harsh, and the last thing you want is to alienate or estrange your child. You just need to gently increase their responsibilities so that they’re empowered to become more self-sufficient.
GV: As kids approach early adulthood, are there any ‘red flags’ parents should be looking out for that might indicate that their kids are (or are about to become) struggling transitioners?
MARK: Well, for starters, irresponsible adolescent behaviour in a 14- or 15-year-old is developmentally normal. Immaturity just goes with the territory – and you deal with it by setting expectations, and giving them opportunities to contribute and to be responsible. But when you see a 16- or 17-year-old exhibiting that same behaviour – and when you’re seeing chronic procrastination, avoidance, denial, failure to manage their academic journey – then those are some major red flags to be aware of.
Ideally, by the last two years of college, we’d like to see the kid stepping up their sense of ownership over schoolwork and other aspects of their life … and most responsible kids get there. But with the kids who don’t (I see loads of them in therapy), we try to examine what’s underlying the behaviour. Some of them have undiagnosed learning difficulties or other barriers to overcome on the road to academic success … and it can be helpful for these kids, in particular, to get an after-school job. With the money they earn, they can contribute towards the cost of the family’s WiFi and Netflix membership (for instance) – so they’re learning to be a citizen of the future world, even if school isn’t their forte.
GV: Were you a struggling transitioner?
MARK: If I’d had the opportunity to be a struggling transitioner, I would have been for sure, but I grew up in a different era. If I had done poorly at school, I would have ended up being drafted for the Vietnam War, as lots of my friends were. I knew I didn’t want to go to work, but I sure as anything didn’t want to go to WAR! My friends who fought came back and told me terrifying stories. So that was a strong motivator to study hard!
But I’ve always felt a real kinship with these kids who struggle. Much of their inner-world experience was very familiar to me – and it’s why I became a psychologist. I was very unsure of myself when I was growing up, and full of self-doubt. I’d been told I was smart, but in a classroom I didn’t feel smart – and I was afraid that, if I worked harder, all I’d really prove was that I was a disappointment.
I hid my anxiety – I was always charming, social, friendly and funny – so I looked like a very secure kid. But I was actually very insecure. That whole anxiety over doing something stupid, and the imagined shame I’d feel as a result … it’s always felt familiar to me.
So I really can identify with how scary things feel for these kids. And I love working with them …
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT MARK McCONVILLE AT WWW.MARKMCCONVILLEPHD.COM – HIS BOOK ‘FAILURE TO LAUNCH’ CAN BE FOUND AT ALL GOOD BOOK SELLERS.