Thrive | Emerge™


Failure-To-Launch Young Adults:
Strained Nerves And Drained Funds Present A Novel Challenge To The Financial Planning Professional

by Rick Silver, MD

Ask financial planners what they do for a living, and you’re not likely to hear “I monitor the emotional lives of my clients.” But demographic trends over the past several decades might be a prod for the alert financal planner to inquire into the psychological welfare of their clients’ offspring, particularly those who remain at home into their late twenties and early thirties.

According to a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center, 36% of the nation’s young adults ages 18 to 31were living in their parents’ home – the highest share in four decades, setting a record total of 21.6 million. For 18 to 24 year olds, 56% have yet to establish independent lives.

Although most of these young adults eventually succeed in flying the nest, a sizeable group – those classified as “failure to launch” – can remain under their parents’ emotional and financial umbrella well into their 30’s.Members of this group have typically experienced multiple failures in education, employment and relationship and simply do not possess the emotional wherewithal or life skills to successfully manage the multiple challenges of adulthood. Extended time to grow up is not a sufficient remedy for the complex developmental challenges facing these young adults.

While a multitude of factors contribute to this struggle to gain a solid foothold in autonomy, chief among the challenges are untreated mental illness and substance abuse, dysfunctional family dynamics and childhood trauma. Mental illness alone affects 50% of emerging adults between the ages of 18 and 25, with 75% of any lifetime anxiety, mood or substance abuse disorder beginning before age 24.

Consider the following typical scenario expressed by parents of a “failure to launch” young adult:

“Scott is 23 years old. He has been to one semester of college but dropped out and came to live at home because his depression, anxiety and ADHD got in the way of his being able to perform at school. He’s been back with us for two years now. We keep pushing him to get a job, go back to school, get some friends, get some help or just do something useful with his time.

“He spends a lot of time around the house, playing video games, staying up to all hours. We know he’s using some alcohol and marijuana, but we think he lies to us about how much. It’s seems like all we do is nag and all he does is shut down.

“We love him, but we’re so upset with him that we’re ready to kick him out of the house. We know he feels badly about himself, but we’re at our wits end and don’t know where to turn next. This isn’t what any of us expected for him as a young man.”

The emotional burden for parents of these “failure to launch” young adults – and for the young adults themselves -- is incalculable: lost dreams, increased discord in the family, fears for the child’s future safety and security. The financial costs– multiple college failures, increased mental health expenditures, legal fees, and a decade or more of room and board costs for the child at home beyond 18 years -- are enormous as well. All this adds up to diminished financial stability of these families, forced unanticipated and extended employment, and reduced options for security, leisure and investment in later years.

A 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture report estimated the cost of raising a child at around $300,000 for the first 17 years for a middle-income, two-parent family. Although some economists feel that this is a severe underestimate, the annual expenditure per child based on this report is $17,647. Add the high cost of mental health care in the “failure to launch” population (for example, weekly one-hour psychotherapy sessions costing $150/hour = $7,500 annually – an extremely conservative estimate given the complexity of care typically needed for this population) and the annual cost rockets to $25,147. If we accept the estimates of mental health specialists for this population that an untreated “failure to launch” young adult might remain at home for 10-15 years, excess expenditures beyond those expected for the independent young adult can total about $251,000 to $377,00.

Because of the complex nature of their condition, treatment for these struggling young adults can demand a unique approach, the goal of which is to help these kids obtain the requisite life skills necessary for successful independence several years prior to what they would achieve without mental health care. Traditional treatment models – in which the troubled individual sees a single practitioner weekly – can provide some benefit, but are generally less effective in producing sustained change towards independence.

Rick Silver, MD, director of the wrap-around “failure-to-launch” treatment program Heron’s Gate in Columbia, MD, encourages parents to seek care from several mental health specialists simultaneously – a psychiatrist for medication of mood and anxiety problems; a psychotherapist for self-esteem and emotional self-regulation; an executive function coach to deal with ADHD- related issues of motivation and organization; a family therapist for improved communications between parents and child; a young adult support group; and an addictions therapist for substance abuse issues.

“Without this comprehensive care, the parents run the risk of investing in costly mental health interventions over a longer period with less lasting impact.” He suggests that the family may wish to begin with two or three components initially because of financial considerations, but to expect that “over time, the young adult will need support in all aspects of their life in order to make the changes that will allow them to achieve a more autonomous lifestyle in relation to their parents.”

Although no one expects the financial planner to double as a psychotherapist, judicious and sensitive questioning can go a long way toward helping your clients better manage the otherwise lost or misdirected assets demanded by the child still struggling towards adulthood. John R. Hill, CFP and CEO of the Pinnacle Advisory Group, Inc., says that “I am shocked at times by the size of the checks written by parents for their struggling kids -- not just once, but on an on-going basis, over years. Even though good treatment can be expensive, if it speeds the child’s movement towards independence, it can reduce the overall financial burden on the family and increase the availability of funds for other investments.”

Gently prodding for information on the emotional status of children and directing your clients to the appropriate resources will increase the likelihood of them receiving care sooner rather than later, with a significant decrease in the emotional and financial burdens posed by this challenging population. Some practical tips for how to proceed include:

  • In addition to exploring the “hard” resources, guide the conversation with your clients to issues of a more personal nature. This can be done casually once you know your clients a bit, and most people will appreciate the opportunity to reflect on the interface between financial and emotional concerns. These families already know they have a serious problem on their hands and often feel quite lost and helpless regarding how to proceed. You may be the first in line to help them organize an appropriate and effective treatment response.
  • Begin with a few simple questions:
    • “Do you have children who are struggling to launch into independent adulthood?”
    • “Are they receiving adequate treatment for their problems?”
    • “How much do you estimate that you spend monthly on your child who still lives at home?”
    • “What would be the costs to the family of not acting?” (For newcomers to the mental health treatment world, this question might provide a valuable prod to action).
  • Once you have framed the emotional and financial dimensions of the problem, guide them to mental health resources. Suggest that they search for mental health specialists who work with the “transitional” or “failure to launch” population, including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, licensed clinical professional counselors, substance abuse therapists, and ADHD/ Executive Function coaches. Possible sources for these professionals include:
    • Mental health professionals among your existing clientele
    • The Psychology Today – Find A Therapist website (
    • The CHADD (Children and Adults with ADD) website – listing of ADHD professionals
    • The ADDA (Attention Deficit Disorder Association) website – listing of ADHD professionals
    • The state and local chapters of the following professional organizations:
      • American Psychiatric Association
      • American Psychological Association
      • National Association of Social Workers
      • American Counseling Association
      • National Association for Addictions Professionals
      • List of in-network mental health professionals available to your clients through their insurance websites
      • For clients in the Baltimore-Washington-Annapolis corridor, the THRIVE Center for ADHD ( offers a comprehensive, intensive program for the “failure to launch” population called Heron’s Gate. Mental health specialists in this population can be reached at 410-740-3240.

Although treatment for the “failure to launch” young adult might be a lengthy process, your intervention can serve as a value-added component to your financial planning practice that will help guide your clients down the path of more effective management of their precious financial – and emotional – resources.

Most parents are eager to invest in the mental health of their troubled child, and involving the financial planner in the initial stage of this process can help the parents make a wiser, more productive investment, leading to improved quality of life for both parents and children in the long term.