Houston, We Have a Problem

Houston, We Have a Problem

Failure to Launch

Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
— Leonard Cohen

As we send our adolescent children back to high school and college, or struggle with our young adult children to help them develop emotional and financial independence, many of us wonder if the phase of “preparing for productivity” will ever end. In this blog post I will consider the multiple transitions of the “Launching Phase” from the perspectives of both parents and children.

“Launching” is a relational task – children have to launch and parents have to launch them. The process of self-differentiation is about setting appropriate limits and boundaries, staying connected to one’s extended family of origin while maintaining emotional independence and self-sufficiency. Family members often fail one another in important and painful ways during this life cycle stage, yet they remain family forever and must find their way forward together.

A young adult’s tasks in this launching phase transition are primarily focused on the development of autonomy and healthy emotional interdependence. The goal for the young adult is to become emotionally and financially accountable to one’s self while at the same time maintaining connections with their family of origin without taking on the family’s “stuff.” The way to develop differentiation is not to cut off, but to see other family members for who they are and stay connected with them despite their shortcomings.

The parents’ tasks begin with facilitating the transition from the parent-child relationship to a more co-equal adult-to-adult relationship. In addition, parents must attend to other midlife developmental tasks including becoming a couple again and resolving issues with their parents, caring giving and adapting to their death.

Ronald B. Cohen of Family Focused Solutions (familyfocusedsolutions.com) discusses children's launching as a relational task.

Failure to launch results in either fusion and enmeshment, wherein the young adult does not “leave home”, or distance, cut offs and estrangement, where contact is kept to a minimum or not at all. Either way the members of the family remain highly reactive to each other, tied up in not being free to develop and grow.

Stressors and impediments to successful launching may arise from multiple relationships within the family system that include:

1. Primary parental triangles
2. Alcoholism and chemical dependence
3. Financial dependence
4. Parental illness and premature death

Bowen Family Systems Coaching helps parents and children become more self-directed, self-supporting and better able to make choices to change based on one’s internal beliefs, rather than slavishly conforming to or reflexively dismissing out of hand, the rules, roles, relationship requirements and rituals of one’s family of origin.

The good news is most families have successfully accomplished and completed this life cycle transition, thereby being well prepared for inevitable stressors of subsequent life cycle stages. For those stuck in pre-launch relationship patterns, consultation with a well trained Bowen Family Systems Coach can assist the family to expand its knowledge base and skill set, and help the entire family move forward in a positive direction.

Please share your thoughts and experiences concerning The Launching Phase in the “Leave a Reply” box below. To request more information and/or schedule an initial consultation, click here. If you found this post helpful, please don’t keep it a secret. You are encouraged to click on the buttons in the second to the right hand column at the bottom of the page and share this article with your own networks. Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Ronald B Cohen, MD, PC www.familyfocusedsolutions.com Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 466-7530

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  1. Melissa Killeen on September 5, 2013 at 5:45 pm said:

    Excellent blog! I personally am having a launching problem with my 24yr old and will use some of your suggestions.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on September 6, 2013 at 4:37 pm said:

      Hi Melissa,

      It sometimes helps to think about one’s own launching difficulties in the process of deciding how best to parent our adolescent and young adult children. Best of luck on this unfolding adventure of a lifetime.



  2. Angelina on September 6, 2013 at 11:38 pm said:

    I am in the process of preparing to “launch.” I’m approaching 29 and my parents are very resistant to letting me go. Because of the economy, I am not financially independent yet but I need to move out in order to feel like a real adult. This article makes sense, we are very enmeshed and always in an unhealthy triangle. I hope to launch within a year! It will definitely be a major adjustment for all of us, but so necessary.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on September 8, 2013 at 8:32 am said:

      Hi Angelina,

      Thank you for sharing your difficulties in this crucial life cycle transition. I offered some suggestions in my blog “On Becoming an Adult”. Poignantly, yours is the mirror image situation of the one Melissa finds herself and her family in. This beautifully highlights the reciprocal nature of the process. Unfortunately you currently are at a significant power disadvantage. It is difficult, if not impossible, to develop emotional self-differentiation when one is still financially dependent.

      Nonetheless, I would suggest starting in the same place as always, work on self-differentiation in your family of origin, a process for making change in your family relationships even without the participation of other family members. Work on self-differentiation in one’s family of origin is always available, is uniquely efficient and effective regardless of the situation, and cannot be sabotaged by anyone else. Try to learn as much as you can about your parents’ launching difficulties, perhaps from aunts, uncles and grandparents if not directly from them. Consult with your siblings. Tap your professional and educational networks to find a well-trained Bowen Family Systems Coach who can guide you through the process. Please fell free to reach out directly if I can be of further assistance. Best of luck on this unfolding adventure of a lifetime.



  3. Lauren Anzaldo on October 23, 2013 at 3:11 pm said:

    I appreciate the blog post. I found interesting the statement that the launching phase provides the opportunity for young people to make decisions based on their own beliefs rather than unthinkingly accepting or rejecting their family’s rules, roles, relationships and rituals. I imagine that launching is less difficult for someone who is grounded in a family with defined yet flexible rules, roles, relationships and rituals. I wonder about your experience with families that, for whatever reason, did not establish family rituals and how this affects the launching process.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on November 11, 2013 at 7:57 pm said:

      Hi Lauren,

      Great question. I’d agree, structure is good. I think the key phrase in what you wrote is “a family with defined yet flexible rules, roles, relationships and rituals”. Creating a “self-in-relation” is much easier when there is the safe haven and strong base of a secure attachment. The existence of an empathic envelop that the family is then able to expand to allow cycles of movement out and subsequent re-entry provide a foundation for differentiation of self.

      Conversely, chaotic families with little dependable structure or consistent functioning are more likely to result in fusion or cut-offs. It is difficult to integrate the loss of transition when there wasn’t much there to begin with. The difficulties of Launching in Poorly Differentiated Families sounds like an excellent idea for a future blog. Thanks.



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