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Don’t Blame Substance Use for Your Adult Child’s Failure to Launch

Twelve step programs are a trap, and this highly-rated alternative will set you on the path to true freedom from addiction.

I was sitting at my 17 year old son’s swim meet a few years ago, talking to a few of the other mothers, when one woman, I’ll call her Debby, began talking about her 25 year old son (Brandon) still living at home. She began saying how much harder it is for her children to get out on their own than it was for us in the 1980s. Normally, I let people have their opinions that may not be in line with my own, and I stay quiet. But in this case, I heard sadness and frustration in her voice, and I knew I could help her.

I asked her what she thought was so much harder? She blamed it on the higher cost of living, and that wages hadn’t kept up with it (a perception based on the media, not reality.). She blamed it on the fact that he had student loans to pay, and then she explained how hard it has been for her son to find and keep a job after finishing college. It was then that she got to the heart of the matter. Her son spent the vast majority of his time in his room playing video games or out partying with friends. He couldn’t seem to keep a job because he wasn’t a reliable employee.

She knew my professional background in the addiction-help and research field and pulled me aside later and confessed that she was concerned he had a problem with alcohol and drugs.  She admitted that’s really why he was still at home. She was worried that his problem had gotten so bad that he couldn’t take care of himself. He had graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree by the skin of his teeth, got a good job right after graduation, but went through a bad break up, and has been off the rails ever since. He lost his job, began drinking heavily, and fell into what she described as a deep depression.

When we talked I was kind and understanding, but direct. I said, “Why wouldn’t he be depressed? He’s doing nothing to move his life forward. He suffered one setback and allowed himself to become stagnant. And we all know what happens to stagnant water, the same thing happens to stagnant people.” He’s likely using substances because it’s a quick and easy way to feel good, even if it’s only for a moment. Regardless of the reason for his failure to launch, the only person with the power to fix it, is him. And then I reassured her — he does have the power and ability to fix it and move on.

She admitted this had been going on for 2 years, and she had been waiting for him to get through it, but the more she tried to talk to him about his plans for the future, the more angry and withdrawn he became. And then he would go out and sometimes wouldn’t come home for days.

Then she asked the question, does Brandon need rehab for addiction? My answer was an emphatic, NO! That’s the last thing he needs, but that’s what most parents end up doing when they are not sure what else to do. I explained that rehab will take Brandon’s temporary problem — which is actually a rather simple failure to launch — and turn it into a progressive, incurable disease called Alcohol Use Disorder or Substance Use Disorder (i.e. addiction). Once he is given that label, and told he needs to manage his disease for the rest of his life, he then begins the revolving door of heavy use, rehab, fear-based abstinence, heavy use, rehab, fear-based abstinence. This is a cycle that sadly, far too many people never escape.

Brandon’s problem, like so many other 20 and 30 somethings who get stuck, is relatively simple. He’s doing what he feels will bring him happiness, even if that happiness is one small step up from abject misery. He sees value in his substance use and playing video games. He doesn’t have a disease or disorder compelling him to ingest substances and play video games against his will. These are the activities he believes he needs for happiness, and he may be stuck believing it’s the best he can do. So it isn’t really the substance use and video games keeping him from getting on with his life, it’s his belief system.

So many parents contact me at the St Jude Retreat, eager to blame substance use (i.e. addiction) for their adult child’s failure to launch. But if you look at the data in the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, nearly 50% of young adults 21 – 25 years old admit to frequent, heavy binge drinking, and nearly 25% of 18 – 20 year olds admit to using drugs, yet heavy drinking and drug use drops precipitously after age 25. This means that the majority of young adults move out on their own during a time in their lives when they are using substances the heaviest. Think about that for a moment and then consider this: only about 10% of heavy substance users go to rehab, so what happens to those that don’t? We know from the data, they reduce their substance use as their priorities shift and other things become important.  And when I ask many parents what they were doing in their early to mid 20’s many admit, they were partying pretty hard. Some quickly realize that they made it just fine, and know intuitively after one conversation what they can do to help their kids to move on.

If you have an adult child that is stuck, whether or not they are substance users or have developed another habit that takes up all their time, it is a mistake to blame the substance use or other perceived addiction for them being stuck. It can also be a mistake to blame perceived emotional problems. The substance use, other habits, and emotional problems are far more likely a result of being stuck, rather than a cause of it. Some adult kids need coaxing, positive reinforcement, and guidance to be able to see the massive benefits of getting out on their own. And some need a good old fashioned, proverbial kick in the keister in the form of a direct, unapologetic, but still kind, conversation that it’s time to get on with things.

All kids, no matter how old, will look to see if their parents have confidence in their abilities and direction. So while the conversation might be difficult, your confidence in their ability to move on will do more to get them moving than any other thing you say or do. You have to really believe that they will be able to move forward. Making the parental move to let your child discover the world with all its risks, and knowing they have what it takes (even when they are in a state of struggle), is a real gut check. I know, because I’ve done it, and I’ve watched thousands of other parents do it as well. You can’t make the world easier for your child, you can only believe they have everything inside them that you had when you ran the gauntlet between adolescence and real adulthood.

Know this, it’s not harder today than it was when we were young. In fact, technology has made just about everything easier — almost too easy. You can get a college degree and never have to leave your bedroom! If anything is harder, it’s finding the motivation to get off the couch and do something because everything is quite literally at your fingertips.

If you fear your adult child is drinking too much or using drugs, treat that as a separate issue. You can say that you’re concerned about the substance use, and be curious about it, but be cautious not to tie it to other life issues such as unemployment and still living at home as that will needlessly overcomplicate the problem and give fodder for argument. Address one thing at a time. If the substance use issue is the immediate crisis, The Freedom Model is an answer that won’t saddle your child with degrading or inaccurate labels, and will provide them a way to move past the addiction for good with no downsides. Address the addiction with its own solutions, while addressing the failure to launch with its own. By making each situation independent of the others, you create bite-sized solutions that work and that are seen as completely doable.

Know that millions go through this every year successfully. Your child will too. The human spirit, no matter how down trodden one day, can be motivated and confident the next. It’s a matter of presenting doable options that solve each challenge.

Lastly, none of what I write here is written in stone, as each situation is its own. But if you come at this with confidence that your son or daughter can move forward, and then you decide what you want for yourself and your household, you will be miles ahead of the parent who blindly sends their child to rehab.

If you would like guidance on approaching your child about their substance use I recommend downloading a free e-book at, Addiction Solutions: A Guide for Parents and Families to Help Their Loved Ones.

Also, to get your free copy of The Freedom Model for Addictions, Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap, go to and type in coupon code FREEDOM100.


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