Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Failure to Launch Boats and People: What Independence Day Teaches Us

I live on Cape Ann, MA (not to be mistaken for Cape Cod) and while neither desired nor intended, some boats fail to launch. And the reasons are many and the results are, to be clear, sub-optimal. Some boat owners place blame on the wind or the tides or the dock ramp. There are no shortages of excuses. And while it leads to some laughter among viewers (see the YouTubes), to the boat owner, there is nothing funny about a failure to launch.

More recently, I have been reflecting on people of all ages and at all stages who fail to launch. And, like boats, there is nothing funny about launch failures (despite a comedy movie on this theme designed to elicit laughs). That is because the causes are many and varied.

To make sure we are on the same page definitionally: The failure of people to launch refers to the incapacity of people to move on within certain time frames into the next phase of their life. While the term is often used to reference young people who cannot transition to adulthood (continuing to live at home unemployed for example), the failure to launch is not limited to youth. It is vastly more than the Peter Pan syndrome, which nomenclature shortchanges causes for launch failure.

Some children fail to launch when they start pre-school or elementary school, unable to separate ably from their caregivers. Some adult children can’t launch either, continuing to live at their parental home, unable to live alone and independently. And, some individuals who are divorced or widowed can’t get into new relationships because their launch is tangled up in the past and they can’t free themselves from the entanglements or old feelings or bitterness or fear or guilt or anxiety…. among other reasons.

Here is what worries me. We should be worried about the loss of development, talent, expertise, engagement that gets thwarted by failed launches. And, we need to think about how to help those who can’t launch to be able to launch. Think about all the children at the Highland Park July 4th parade whose launches may well be impaired.

But, to help the non-launchers, folks who aren’t launching need to recognize that they are stuck. You can’t get unstuck if you can’t see how stuck you are. And, it is not enough to see that one can’t launch; one needs to take active steps for remediation. And, others need to help: family and friends; counselors; therapists; religious leaders; workplace leaders. And the non-launchers should most assuredly not blame those who help them see their stuckness as the cause; they can’t get angry or hurt so deeply by seeing the truth, namely that they are paralyzed.

Ponder the reasons for the need for self-awareness and self-help. You can rescue someone drowning but that doesn’t teach them to swim. You can interest stuck folks in new relationships but if they can’t enjoy them, the newness and its power are wasted. Forcing children to separate (and struggle with tears) isn’t teaching them. (Ponder transitional objects which are deeply helpful, the subject of my newest children’s book called My Pocketbook).

Since I specialize in trauma and I focus on its impact on learning and psychosocial development. I see many people in my professional life who are struggling to launch — at home and at work. Many non-launchers are dealing with unresolved trauma. I have also seen it in my personal life where individuals cannot seem to find a pathway forward, partly or wholly because of trauma. They are so entrenched and glued to the past or the situations into which they find themselves that they don’t have the courage, strength, insight or willingness to take the acknowledged and real hard steps to launch.

Launching often just happens for many people. But for some, launching needs to be aided if there are life situations that work like superglue. Mothers who are mentally or physically ill can delay the launching of their children unintentionally; abuse at home can delay launching; internal conflicts with or about former or deceased spouses (which require reflecting on and accepting some negative feelings) can delay launching; fear and insecurity can delay launching.

I worry that we do not recognize the failure to launch with enough seriousness. The folks who can’t launch — like the boats — are sinking. They get stuck. They can’t float. They can’t enjoy. They are literally and figuratively stuck. Joy escapes. Anger and sadness and sense of failure prevail.

Maybe we need to do more to help non-launchers launch by having them see and act on their situation. That starts with naming what is happening and critically, the price they are paying for their failure to launch. As we just celebrated Independence Day, how sad is it when people can’t become Independent. And, the July 4th holiday can be a reminder that Independence has real value and its absence calls for action. It takes courage to move forward, to declare Independence. It is filled with risk.

But, staying dependent can be a type of personal prison. It can cause developmental delays. It curbs relationships that require intimacy. Those results are way worse that the struggle to become Independent with a capital I. Our nation did it. We can do it as individuals.

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Karen Gross

Karen Gross

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor