- Privilege can provide significant advantages, but it does not guarantee success.
- Adult children experience a lot of emotional pain when they see themselves as failures.
- Lack of resilience, unrealistic expectations, and lack of purpose can stymie the success of adult children.
Carrie, the mother of 29-year-old Jen, sadly looked at me and said, "We tried so hard to always be there for Jen. I never thought she would end up in this awful place in her life." For context, Jen had failed out of two colleges and had never held a job for more than a couple of months. As you will see below in the similar, more detailed story of Michael, these stories of struggling adult children are very concerning.
Clearly, many children with parents and caregivers who provide them with lifestyle and financial advantages do well in the world. At the same time, I have seen in my practice many privileged adult children who experience significant setbacks leading to prolonged failures for various reasons, despite these advantages. Here are three possible explanations:
1. Lack of Resilience
Privileged children often grow up with a safety net that shields them from many of life's hardships. As a result, they may not develop the resilience and coping skills necessary to navigate challenges effectively. When they fail, some might struggle to bounce back and adapt, as they may not have developed the emotional and psychological resilience needed to persevere through adversity.
There is no value in getting into a blame game when adult children lack grit, struggle, or, worse, engage in self-sabotage. Depression, anxiety, personality factors, addictions, and family dynamics can impinge on the ability of adult children to move forward toward independence. At the same time, parents need to make sure they do not enable adult children in ways that interfere with their learning to make it past their challenges.
As I assert in my book, 10 Days To A Less Defiant Child, there are no two more important life skills than the abilities to 1) calm down and 2) problem-solve. Most parents I coach report that their struggling adult children lack these two skills, which undermines their ability to be resilient in the face of the challenges that they encounter.
2. Entitlement and Unrealistic Expectations
Privileged children might develop a sense of entitlement and unrealistic expectations about success. They may come to believe that success should come easily, and when they face obstacles, they may become frustrated, disillusioned, or give up too quickly. This can lead to underachievement or a lack of motivation to work hard to achieve their goals.
Unrealistic self-expectations can lead to chronic stress and anxiety. Adult children who constantly feel the need to meet high standards may experience persistent worry and fear of failure. Interestingly, I have coached many parents who have not explicitly pressured an adult child to be a high achiever, yet that adult child silently expects to keep up with or surpass the high achievements of siblings. When these adult children fall short of their own unrealistic expectations, it can erode their self-esteem and self-worth. They may begin to perceive themselves as inadequate or unworthy.
Related, unmet expectations and a sense of failure can contribute to depression. The constant feeling of not measuring up can lead to a persistent low mood and a sense of hopelessness.
Another problem related to unrealistic expectations getting in the way of success for some struggling adult children is that they often lead to perfectionism, This happens when adult children strive for unattainable levels of performance. This perfectionism gets in the way of resilience as it can be paralyzing and lead to heightened anxiety, depression, and a sense of burnout.
Paradoxically, unrealistic expectations can also lead to procrastination. The fear of not meeting these expectations can cause struggling adult children to avoid tasks and responsibilities altogether.
3. Lack of Motivation and Purpose
When adult children have their needs well met and have access to resources without effort, they may lack intrinsic motivation to meaningfully consider and pursue meaningful goals. This lack of motivation can lead to a lack of direction in life, resulting in perceived failure or underachievement, as they may not find a path that truly resonates with their interests and passions.
The Story of Michael
At the time Michael's parents reached out to me, he was an adult child who seemed to be stuck in a perpetual state of uncertainty. He was in his late twenties, a time when most people were building careers, starting families, or pursuing their passions with a sense of purpose.
Like many adult children I hear about, Michael had previously been a bright and talented individual. In high school, he excelled in various subjects and showed promise with a strong interest in chemistry. During those years Michael was proud of how easily good grades came to him. He would tell his parents during his high school years, "My classes are a breeze."
Yet, when Michael attended college as a freshman he complained, "I can't really get into these college classes because my professors don't know how to teach." He switched his major to business in his sophomore year but that major did not truly resonate with him. He dropped two of his five classes and barely passed the others. Being at that point being on the verge of academic probation for poor grades, Michael wanted to switch to a math major, hoping to discover a new passion. But Michael's "stupid academic advisor" told him he first had to improve his grades. After two-and-a-half years of struggle, he left college without a degree, feeling lost and overwhelmed by a sense of pressure to succeed.
Michael subsequently tried different jobs, from waiting tables to office work, but he found himself dissatisfied with each one. He couldn't see the purpose in what he was doing, and his lack of direction left him feeling adrift in a sea of aimlessness.
It's important to emphasize that not all privileged children experience failure, and the above explanations may not apply to every individual. Privilege can provide significant advantages, but it does not guarantee success. Personal characteristics, choices, circumstances, and healthy family support also play a significant role in an adult child's life outcomes.
© Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Facebook/LinkedIn image: Studio Romantic/Shutterstock
Bernstein, J. (2023). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, Hachette Go Books, New York, NY
Bernstein, J. (2020). The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, PESI Publishing Eu Claire, WI.
Willingham, D. (2023). There Are Better Ways to Study That Will Last A Lifetime, New York Times.