Failure to Launch: Affect Avoidance on Steroids

I want to talk about the difficulty for young adults of launching into adult life and how it relates to affect avoidance, but first, let me focus on the topic of affect avoidance in general. (Photo:  Denise Sebastian, Flickr, CC.)

A bit of recent history: It was only in the last few years as I was working on How We Heal and Grow that I came to understand the centrality of affect avoidance. The idea was an old one, that avoidance of painful feelings could shape dysfunctional patterns in life. What was new was realizing that affect avoidance is not just the cause of some but is at the center of all the kinds of pathology we treat in psychotherapy. As I tested out this idea, it just kept on being the simplest and most useful explanation for our entrenched dysfunctional patterns.

A Brief Review of Affect Avoidance

There are reasons for affect avoidance being a good way to explain our psychological troubles. As we understand better how humans are motivated to do what they do, we have come to understand that our minds have evolved to seek out what gives us good feelings and, even more avidly, to avoid anticipated bad feelings. In contrast, the motivations that trigger our reactions are complex, ranging from physical appetites that make us feel uncomfortable all the way to the feelings of pride and shame that try to keep our behavior on the straight and narrow. In all their variety and complexity, emotions provide the drive for us to act. Similarly, the outputs or reslults of motivation are also complex. For example, hunger might drive us to make a reservation at a fine restaurant, or it might just as well lead us to reach for a snack.

The lynchpin between motivation and reaction is not complex at all. It is binary, approach or avoid. The mammalian brain is organized around positive and negative affects. We are motivated to go towards what gives us good feelings and away from what gives us bad ones. This probably has something to do with the way the nervous system is constructed. Neural networks, which embody our knowledge of the world, can influence other associated networks in only two ways, either positive or negative. They either make the associated network more likely to fire as a unit, or they inhibit firing. Of course in our behavior, we seek to have our cake and eat it too by finding clever compromises and ways to both approach and avoid at the same time. However, the underlying principle is binary. We either approach or avoid. This is why a principle as simple as avoidance of dreaded feelings can explain so much about our entrenched dysfunctional patterns. Here is a diagram to show the complexity in what triggers an avoidance response, simplicity in the binary approach or avoidance response itself, and complexity in the resulting behavior patterns.


For understanding human pathology, avoidance of bad feelings is far more important than seeking of good ones. The entrenched dysfunctional patterns that make up our psychological troubles are overwhelmingly oriented towards anticipating and avoiding bad feeling. Seeking out the positive is certainly part of life, but rarely underlies our stuck-ness. When it does, pleasure can usually be seen as a way to escape the negative. For this reason, I have simplified the Affect Avoidance Model to focus on the avoidance of uncomfortable feelings.

One more point for completeness. The word affect refers to feelings that are consciously experienced. Our mind/brain’s efforts at affect avoidance are aimed at preventing the conscious experience of uncomfortable affects. Whatever form they exist in outside of consciousness does not seem, in itself, to generate avoidance. However, the mind/brain is extremely good at anticipation, so it reacts, long before affects actually hit consciousness, to put preventative measures in place. For this reason, many of our avoidance mechanisms or patterns happen without our being fully aware of what it is they are aimed at avoiding. We often have to guess about this, because, as has often been stated, 90% or so, of our mental processing goes on outside our small window of consciousness.

How Affect Avoidance Works with Teens and  Young Adults

Recently I realized that a very large part of my practice had come to involve helping young adults and their families with launching. That’s why I am focusing on this topic in my other blog on Psychology Today. Here are some thoughts about how launching into adulthood and affect avoidance are intimately related.

The hardest, and perhaps main job of becoming adult is taking on responsibility for one’s actions and their consequences. The good news is that, as adults, we get to make our own choices. But the hard part is that we no longer have the luxury of holding the “grownups” responsible. The weight of responsibility carries a lot of potentially painful feelings. Accepting these and learning to face them is truly a difficult transition.

It is the pain of responsibility and consequences that makes young people so eager to escape. Here are some of the ways they use. I think of them as “power tools” for avoidance:

  • Repudiate responsibility by getting drunk and silly
  • Play “cat and mouse,” letting the parents worry about the good behavior while the young person concentrates on evading the parents and pursuing bad behavior
  • Play the “softie” parent off against the “tough love” parent to neutralize both
  • Protect the status quo by threatening suicide, a criminal lifestyle, or serious self-destructive behavior
  • Use sex or drugs to escape
  • Adopt a “laid back lifestyle” and avoid competing in an unforgiving world
  • Overuse diagnoses like depression and anxiety to avoid the stresses of moving into adulthood
  • Go back to school
  • “Yes the parents to death” or lie to escape their pressure
  • Play video games that give the illusion of acting as an adult
  • Sleep while the adult world is moving forward
  • Function in a marginal job where stress is minimal
  • Travel or eternally seek one’s “passion”

I’m sure there are as many more ways as the mind/brain is resourceful. Usually avoidance is tailored to the particular family and situation to make it maximally difficult for parents and authorities to exert pressure, yet this is exactly what the young person needs. As always, the cure for affect avoidance is facing one’s feelings.

Why it is Harder for Millennials

Today, especially in the United States, but in the rest of the world as well, this problem has become epidemic. As I see it, there are two reasons. First, Millennials, (Officially, born between 1982-2004) have been heavily shielded from stress and discomfort. The parental generation came to believe that danger and stress were bad and that our children should be shielded from both of them. Of course the children got the message, and ran with it.

The other side is that globalization has reduced the availability of “entry level” jobs. Those were jobs with a relatively low level of stress, decent wages, and a lot of support and direction from above. Instead, millennials must go into poverty level jobs at minimum wage, or compete for ones requiring a high level of skill and maturity. The prospect is not nearly as bountiful as it was for their parents’ generation. This only increases young people’s enthusiasm for avoiding the painful affects that are so prevalent in association with moving out into today’s world.

The Answer

In most cases, the answer is for the parents or responsible adults to help generate motivation by setting up conditions that incentivize moving towards adulthood and disincentivized staying put. The young person, needs, then, to find the willingness to undertake a long series of stressful but healthy steps out of their comfort zone and into more adult activities and responsibility, learning to face their feelings in the process.

Jeffery Smith MD


  • This is such a useful, comprehensive post on the causes of failure to launch syndrome! Thanks for sharing!
    I was wondering though, if you could go into more detail on setting up conditions that incentivize moving towards adulthood and disincentivized staying put? How might a parent best do that? Any ideas would help!
    Thank you!

    • I most often recommend a “unilateral contract” with the following characteristics:
      1. The preamble says explicitly that the purpose is to do what parents can to further growth and development as they understand it.
      2. The provisions are as simple as possible, and must be easily determined (as judged by the parents) and enforceable.
      3. As much as possible they should reward age appropriate goals involving engagement with the adult world, such as getting a job.
      4. They should NOT focus on goals appropriate for younger children like keeping the room clean and interacting with family.
      5. Negative consequences should use whatever is under parental control to avoid supporting and discourage unhealthy behaviors such as video games, staying up all night, buying drugs, etc.
      6. Positive consequences should support healthy, age appropriate, behavior as it evolves.
      7. The contract will probably have to be modified over time.
      8. Unilateral means that the contract is not negotiated, and may not be popular with the young person, but will make sense from the adult point of view.
      9. Provisions can be discussed and the young person may have constructive input.
      10. Experiments can be incorporated, “Let’s try this and if the result is positive, we’ll keep it in place.” but follow-up is necessary
      11. If parents fail to follow the contract, they owe an apology to the young person.
      12. The timeframe for consequences should be short, hours to days, and, as much as possible, not far in the future.
      13. All provisions must be supported JOINTLY by both parents.
      14. Above all, the contract should create consequences that are easily predictable to the young person.

      I’m open to other suggestions. This may be hard to do, and I intend to say more, but this is the bare outline.


  • Is there anyone in the world out there who has had any positive experience with this issue and their young adult? My husband and I are honestly at a loss with knowing exactly what to do. Our young adult son is acting more like a 15 or 16 year old. He has always been an avoider, but at this point he is on avoidance overdrive. After going to college for a couple of years and he did not do well academically at all. He is now back home and is a slug. He went to one job interview, did not get the job and is now refusing to even go to another interview. When we try to talk to him about it, he gets angry and starts blaming us for all that is wrong with his life. There are other many other details about this son that I could share, and I will if I knew it would help. If there is anyone who actually has done this with their son or daughter, I would love to hear from you. Honestly, I never, ever in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought that I would be in this position. I so want to be tough with him, but I also am very fearful of being so tough. It is one thing to say you would be tough enough to kick your own son to the curb, it is another thing to actually do it. What if’s fly through my head when I even think about it. And every little thing I push back on with him sets him right up on edge. I know this sounds whiny and I also know that if I had heard someone talking like this 5 years ago, I would be like, “What is up with that, no grown man should be allowed to live in your house and act like that!”
    But I know that I have made some parenting mistakes with this son, and I hold myself to such a very harsh standard and this is like ripping me up inside. I really have tried, very quietly for nearly a year now, to figure this out all by myself and I have failed. I have given him time, I have sent him perfect jobs, and I have jumped through hoops to help him over this hump. At this point, I feel so many emotions, but the main ones are: complete embarassment, fear, guilt, and sometimes plain old anger.
    So, ideas. Please. Anyone. Cuz I am drowning over here and it sucks. I will take any ideas– really. It is so far away from how I would ever behave as a person…

    PS He will not, absolutely will NOT go see a counselor.

  • Thank you for these resources. Although this is a large part of your practice, it seems that in my part of the world there is no one else experiencing this with their adult children. Seriously, everyone else’s kids are doing it “right”. I feel like I am in this very, very alone. My husband and I just look at each other. I used to be the “tougher” parent, the one who disciplined more- now I just feel broken. I have read through the Psychology today blog. I just skimmed your book and it makes me nervous to read it more thoroughly– there were parts that jumped out at me that I know I have to face. Sometimes being in denial about it all and pretending it is not happening is so much easier– well not really easier, it just doesn’t hurt as much. Parenting was/is such a huge part of my identity for so many years and we seemed to get through it with pretty good results until now. Now we just feel like failures– well, I do for sure. This just wasn’t part of the plan.

    • TLC you are NOT alone- we are taking it slow (no choice) but fortunately our son will go to therapy – see what you can do about getting your son it- it does make a difference (we haven’t gotten to the point that our son is functioning as his friends in college are but he’s happier now – not so depressed) and cognizant of what he’s feeling emotionally.

Leave a Comment