Hiding Vulnerabilities and Imperfections


You may look around and believe that you see a large number of eighteen- to twenty-two-year-olds functioning impressively as full-on adults. They graduate from high school and go off to higher education at some illustrious place you never could have gotten into, or get astounding jobs. They move out and move up and move on. Right?

            They may make it look easy, but using education as a means to launch into adulthood doesn’t always work. It’s not always so simple. After fighting for the best grades, spending dozens of hours on test prep, padding resumes with extracurricular activities, and then finally getting into the most impressive university on their respective wish lists, too many kids just don’t make it all the way to graduation. The college dropout rate is absurdly high. Studies show that only two out of five students enrolled in four-year colleges will complete a degree within six years. While some students are on the seven-year plan, many won’t complete their programs at all. Only about half of students have a degree at the six-year mark. That statistic alone is enough to call into question all the young people who believe they alone are floundering.

            Recent statistics show that as many as 50% of eighteen- to twenty-four year olds live at home with their parents. Articles in various fields speculate as to the reasons for the rise in young adults living at home. Some say it’s the economy – that young people cannot afford to rent an apartment or buy a house because the costs are too high or their pay is too low. Others call our current generation of young people lazy or entitled, or say they are overgrown children who are still too attached to Mommy and Daddy. Still others assume that young people have gotten wise, and decided they can stockpile a little cash by staying at their parents’ houses a while longer, especially in this era of families communicating well and getting along joyfully. The nuclear family life is extended because people have become so mature and loving and pragmatic.

            In a given case, any of these speculations may prove accurate. But in a clinical mental health office, where families come to deal with their secret problems, far more often it’s those family secrets that drive kids to move home. The young adults here live at home for one very specific reason that no one likes to talk about: they couldn’t make it out in the real world. They tried, and they failed. They started out on a path to leave the nest into adulthood, and they fell down in some dramatic way. Depression, anxiety disorders, and addictions top the list of reasons kids don’t make it on their attempts to launch via college. Some kids just can’t cope. Some develop somatic physical complaints from stress. Others don’t manage to go to bed at a reasonable hour or get up every morning for class without the rhythms of a family household to create structure. When they stay at home and attend classes locally, it’s common for kids to fail to get themselves to the campus on class days at all. I have even heard of students who would leave home in the morning as if following the schedule, only for their parents to discover later that it was all a ruse and that their child had stopped going to classes after the first week. They hide their failures from their parents and lie to avoid punishment like defiant teens.

Not all eighteen-year-olds go to college; some go to work. But even those routinely end up back home with parents. The young adults who start out in jobs and careers struggle to make enough money to support themselves, despite often being responsible and ambitious. Earning enough money is not sufficient to overcome a lack of life experience, and good earners may make spending mistakes. Hardworking young people, thriving at work, may still rack up crippling debt and move home. Others won’t handle the pressures, or may fail to respect their supervisors and get fired or quit. Becoming an adult is not as easy as it sounds. Struggle is common.

            Social media spreads the idea that everyone else has the “perfect life.” The people are all as beautiful as their vegan meals on Instagram. Nobody is telling the whole story, laying out details of how they slept half the day, missed work, and cheated on their diet by eating a half-gallon of their favorite vanilla ice cream. Everyone around you seems perfect and successful and flawless. But you know you are far from flawless.

When the neighbor’s twenty-something moves back home to live, scholars may speculate that they just want to save money on rent, or that they are being a bit lazier than previous generations. But in my office, people are telling another story. The stories I hear share one thing in common: kids move home because their plans didn’t work out. They move home to figure things out and regroup. They move home for financial and emotional support, while they try to comprehend what went wrong.

            The plans don’t work out around 60% of the time, if you follow statistics. But when you or your young adult loved one stumbles, the messages around you tell you that you are the lone failure in the group. Everyone else is either tearing it up, or moved home to save a little cash before taking on their next gig as master of all things.

            If our culture is to find solutions for the blips in the transition to adulthood, it will be of the utmost importance to begin a more honest dialogue about what so commonly goes wrong. Opening up discussions about mental health problems and addiction is one part, but we also need to welcome general discussions of vulnerability and personal imperfections among people of all stages, including young adults. Their futures may look bright, but things can still sometimes be hard. It’s time to stop pretending and get real so we can see the problems and solve them.


Posted on March 5, 2018 .