When Young People Fail to Launch--An Interview with Kevin Gallagher

Kevin Gallagher will lead an all-day continuing education workshop
at the Brattleboro Retreat on Thursday, March 25th.
Click here to learn more and to register. 

Gay Maxwell: What events and experiences in your life led to your interest in adolescents and young adults?
Kevin Gallagher: When I was in graduate school, my internship supervisor was the director of a statewide drug and alcohol prevention program in Vermont. He convinced me to do one of six weeklong residential trainings for kids in high school who are chosen as potential leaders in their school. The trainings help these kids organize substance free events and set up educational experiences for the student body.
I was 28 years old and still found adolescents to be pretty scary, possibly mean and volatile. The whole idea was not very attractive to me. But these kids were just amazing, and I loved it. The following year I did three more trainings and, eventually I took over the program.
I began the work initially because I was overly influenced by my supervisor and didn’t want to disappoint him.  I ended up getting really excited about working with this population. I also worked ten years in the counseling center at the University of Vermont, which really rounded out my experience of adolescence, which I believe ranges in age from about 13 to 25.
Gay Maxwell:  Clinicians and other helping professionals who work with young children certainly study and learn about the signs of “failure to thrive”.  In your experience, what are the signs that a young adult exhibits which might give some warning of “failure to launch”?
KG: I have not done a thorough literature review on this subject, but from twenty years of clinical experience, there is an anecdotal picture that usually forms. The kids tend to have very low tolerance for distress, and they require repeated bailing out when things aren’t working out for them. Often times their parents are too busy, or are chronic worriers. The parents may be overindulgent and give in too easily to their teenager’s demands. I also look for the adolescent who is unusually complacent – such as 23 year olds who don’t have their driver’s license, live at home, claim they are putting off college to travel, but never go anywhere. An important element of adolescence is the pushback—trying more and more to gain independence and autonomy, which I see as an important developmental milestone. Young adults who struggle with launching do not seem to do this pushback as much.
Gay Maxwell:  Is there a particular time in the development of adolescents and young adults when they become especially vulnerable to this psychological paralysis?
Kevin Gallagher: I believe that this discomfort and confusion can begin when an adolescent makes the  change from middle school to high school, especially if it’s from a small school to a much bigger high school where (s)he is confronted with lots of new experiences and new people all at once. I also ask if a family has moved sometime during the teen’s high school years which for many kids can be extremely stressful. In fact, in a study some years ago on teen suicide, the most prevalent factor emerging from the study sample for predicting suicidality was a recent geographic move by the family.
Gay Maxwell:  Does the “failure to launch” female look different than the “failure to launch” male?
Kevin Gallagher: We should put this in a cultural context. This idea of “launching” is very American.  The notion that you should be up and out on your own is a very Western idea, probably built on our cultural myths about the important of self-reliance. In a lot of other cultures, continuing to live with your parents is not that unusual whereas moving out and going away is very unusual. However, when it comes to parenting, I think that Americans may be the most indulgent.
The young women whom I see tend to be highly anxious, and that anxiety can be over-focused on a boy or not having a boyfriend or getting over a boyfriend. The love life issue pulls a lot of attention away from the fact that they are miserable and can’t get their lives going. It ends up being very distracting. However, they are often more forthcoming about their emotions than their male counterparts.
I notice that young men tend to use substances and video games more as a refuge, and that they appear more depressed. I see a great deal of posturing, that “it’s not such a big deal”, and they resist talking about their stalled life being a problem.
Gay Maxwell:  How important is it to engage the family when a young adult feels in a quagmire of indecision and paralysis?  How would family therapy help the individuation process when the family may be already pulling out their hair and thinking, “Would you get a life already?”
Kevin Gallagher: The family piece is VERY important. More specifically, it’s the titrating, or dosing of family therapy that is important to work out thoughtfully. How much? Right now, or maybe later? The counselor has to find a fit that avoids the risk of collusion with parents or distance from the young adult.
I will not see a family more often than I see the young adult, unless the young adult has no interest in meeting. I see my job with the parents as reducing the emotional intensity with which they interact with their child. A young adult has to have opportunities and space to manage themselves better, and to think, rather than just repeat the same-old, same-old patterns of reacting to a frustrated parent. The thinking about and managing their own affairs is much harder, so teens would rather react to their parents, who are sometimes acting like fools, than think about their own situations..
I’d rather get a call at nine o’clock at night from a mom on a tirade than have that mom misbehave in front of the child, further undermining her influence in helping her child do a better job problem-solving the future.
Gay Maxwell:  What about “failure to launch” young adults continues to engage you? And what are the land mines you have to avoid?
Kevin Gallagher: I feel very fortunate that I like these clients as much as I do. A young adult who is depressed may have regrets and remorse, but they also have so much promise. Their energy level is very compelling.
There are two land mines that I look out for: 1) getting critical of parents and 2) getting overly attached to the teen. I have to make sure I like everybody in the family, that no one is my favorite, and that I can communicate confidence to each that they can be successful.
Gay Maxwell: What is it you hope the Brattleboro Retreat conference attendees will take away with them at the end of the day?
Kevin Gallagher: First and foremost, the CEU certificate and the latest free pen offered by the Retreat. These are more valuable by far than Vermont Public Radio mugs.
Secondly, I want the attendees to either GET excited or to KEEP their excitement about working with families. Families in distress can benefit so much from therapeutic modeling, and it can be extremely satisfying to be advocates for young adults and their parents. And any time an adult can be a positive influence on helping young adults work on making better decisions, only good can occur. I also want to reinforce for therapists how important it is to maintain a sense of humor, both about themselves and the work, but also for the wild and crazy patterns that families get into as they attempt to raise well adjusted children.