Jan is a twenty-nine-year-old female client who is living with her parents. She complains of multiple physical and psychological problems and rarely leaves the confines of her room. Fortunately, she has a job she can do from home but often misses deadlines, and the parents wonder how long her employer will accept this shortcoming. She rarely talks to her parents, fears leaving the house, and describes her situation as hopeless. She complains of constant physical pain for which multiple doctors have no answers. The parents feel helpless and discouraged as they discuss this situation with me from the privacy of their car in their driveway. This young woman is suffering from both anxiety and depression as well as other physical problems. Is her failure to launch and dependency on her parents causing her mental health problems, or are the mental health problems at the root of her failure to launch?
The Answer is “Yes”
Like the perspective shared on anxiety’s cousin “depression,” an argument can be made for both/and understanding of anxiety and failure to launch. Rarely have I seen young adults struggling toward responsible independence who don’t feel anxious and express or internalize this as they see their peers moving ahead with their lives. They see peers moving into apartments or purchasing homes, getting married, settling into a job if not a career, and feel left behind or out of sync with their group. This disconnect can be the source of anxiety, depression, or both.
Which Comes First – Anxiety or Failure to Launch?
As with depression, it is important to ascertain how or if this problem predates the failure to launch difficulties. If the young adult has had a history of anxiety, whether treated or not, it is essential to intervene in a supportive and loving way at the earliest signs of this problem. Early intervention through psychotherapy and medication can head off a worsening of the condition and the potential for this to interfere with launching. If there has been a success in the past, either with medication or therapy, these interventions should be resumed.
If anxiety symptoms have emerged for the first time concurrently with difficulties in the launch process, interventions should still be directed toward alleviating these symptoms. Assuming that symptoms of clinical anxiety are only a characteristic of young adult separation and hoping it will go away is not a wise conclusion. One phenomenon that I have observed and reported by several parents is the tendency of adolescents and young adults to fall behind in some comparative way relative to their peers and then give up. This happens in high school and college when the young adult ignores assignments, doesn’t go to class, and gets so far behind, they give up and ultimately drop out of school. Similarly, some young adults who believe they are not living up to their or their parent’s expectations may withdraw or avoid actions that could move them forward. Depression or anxiety and fears of further failure can arise and lead to a level of inaction bordering on paralysis. This inaction based upon underlying anxiety and fear triggers similar reactions in parents. The result can be that the anxiety of either party triggers the other. Young adults often present in angry or reactive ways to push parents away and resist absorbing the parent’s fears as well as their own.
It’s A Fine Line Between Normal and Serious Symptoms of Anxiety
Some anxiety often accompanies efforts to address the significant challenges of young adulthood- identity, independence, and intimacy. When do you assume the anxiety symptoms are more than situational and indicative of something that can worsen and become debilitative? There is no hard and fast rule on this; however, quantity, frequency, persistence, and severity of anxiety symptoms are essential factors to consider. Many anxiety reactions or symptoms are situational and relate to changes or challenges faced in life. For example, anxiety can occur when our young adults decide and act on challenges such as entering post-secondary education, finding a job, entering into an intimate relationship, and choosing a life partner. These challenges often create stress, but when this stress leads to anxiety, fear, and avoidance, additional help is needed. From a clinical perspective, there are three types of anxiety disorders – generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), phobias, and panic disorders. Learn more about these specific diagnoses through the links below. When a young person withdraws, avoids moving forward with actions indicative of responsible independence over several months, we must intervene.
Getting Help For Anxious Young Adults – Easier Said Than Done!
As anxiety persists and becomes more debilitating, young adults will often become more resistant to help even though they recognize they may need this. They are struggling with being independent and asking for help contradicts this drive. In another blog, My Young Adult Needs Help But Refuses! What’s a Parent to Do? I address this challenge of getting help for young adults with mental health concerns, so I will not repeat this advice. That said, here are some approaches to the young adult with anxiety that may be helpful.
- Normalize a level of anxiety that the young adult may have. Share your own experience as a young adult when you faced challenging decisions.
- Recommend various resources for the young adult to consider, such as – Google “help for anxiety,” read about how to handle anxiety, talk to the family doctor, minister, or knowledgeable friend, or forward this article and links below.
- Offer professional resources and let your young adult review profiles of local therapists to determine who might be a good fit. I recommend using Psychology Today therapists’ website to identify resources.
- Offer to partner (not do the work) with the young adult to move forward on significant independent tasks- finding or applying for jobs, getting school applications, encouraging the use of dating sites like Match.com to meet others. There are usually some things we can do to help without taking over the process. We could call for an appointment with their doctor or a therapist and then hand the phone to our young adult to ask about the service or set up an appointment. I don’t see a little “handholding” to create some momentum as a problem. Pay for the services of a therapist, so this is not a barrier.
- Offer choices or options and remind the young adult that they are in charge and have to decide and take any actions to address their anxiety, but you will help in any way you can. Let them know being independent is considering their options, making decisions, and asking for help.
In conclusion, some anxiety is natural in young adults. However, 19% of young adults exhibited an anxiety disorder in one study by the National Institute of Mental Health pre-COVID-19, and it’s reasonable to think that the number is higher today. In addition, many of the current 52% of young adults 18-29 living at home (most recent PEW study) may feel restless but avoid reaching out for help or taking the initiative to become more independent. Many young adults will experience anxiety as they address the significant challenges of this stage of life and will power through this. Still, some will get stuck and clearly need additional help. We must try to help them and not get discouraged.
Some resources to share with your young adult:
- Dealing With Anxiety: For Young Adult
- Understanding Anxiety Disorders Young Adult: Get the Facts
- Support Services and Resources
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA