Failure To Launch: Substance Abuse And Arrested Development

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and fact-checked by an addiction expert.

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and fact-checked by an addiction expert.

Table of Contents

Western culture doesn’t widely embrace right-of-passage ceremonies as early people once did.

As modern children transition into adulthood, pushing authority boundaries and engaging in high-risk behaviors like drinking and drug experimentation have become accepted features of adolescence. But now, with fentanyl addictions on the rise, and other dangerous drugs, experimentation is now causing immediate and early death. Let’s discuss the role of substance abuse in arrested development.
Searching for help with drug and/or alcohol addiction? Call us now at (800) 643-2108.

Substance Abuse and Failure to Launch

Scientific evidence shows that teen substance abuse can impact the prefrontal cortex’s brain structures responsible for higher-order decision making, judgment, risk assessment, mood regulation, and impulse control.

This long-term consequence of teen drug or alcohol abuse is not widely discussed or considered but can profoundly impact their future.

Studies on How Substance Abuse Causes Arrested Development

Using PET scan technology, Merrill Norton, a clinical assistant professor of pharmacy at the University of Georgia, used actual brain imaging to identify how teen substance abuse interferes with brain development, resulting in arrested development.

When a teen or young adult veers off into substance abuse, it can disrupt the learning and maturation process, stunting emotional growth. It slows to a crawl.

Adulting? What’s That?  

This delayed emotional development is usually first noticed in early adulthood when the individual’s maturity level seems stuck at the level of a young teen’s, including ingrained immature habits and thought processes.

This can lead to the young adult’s unwillingness or inability to embrace “adulting”—the practice of living life as a functioning adult in society—resulting in the syndrome commonly referred to as “failure to launch.”

Once addictive behaviors have been treated, and the young adult’s path redirected, there is a need for proactive and structured guidance to help them regain their footing.

An emphasis on personal responsibility and accountability can help restore lost dreams and re-orient the young person back on course through identifiable goals and tactical life skill instruction.

The Importance of Personal Accountability

Personal accountability includes meeting expectations towards self-declared goals and learning how to adhere to a schedule and manage time. They may need to learn basic personal finance skills so they will be able to meet their financial obligations as adults.

The importance of fitness and nutrition needs to be emphasized, as addiction can affect overall health. Accountability to others, nurturing relationships, and learning effective communication skills are also vital to recovery.

Goal Setting and Purpose as a Treatment Element

Young adults in recovery may feel completely rudderless, without direction. This is why an effective outpatient rehab program should encourage clients to discover their purpose in life. Through ongoing counseling and mentoring, young adults in recovery can identify their strengths, skills, and talents and rediscover interests and passions that were likely dormant while in active addiction. Once young adults in recovery have identified their interests and passions, new life goals can be defined. At this juncture, what matters most is that the young adult sets goals and follows through by taking the necessary steps to achieve the goals. Accomplishing even small tasks can lead to renewed self-confidence, inspiring clients to take on more challenging and rewarding tasks. When the mission of addiction recovery shifts towards guiding young adults in finding their purpose in life, it becomes a motivating exercise in hopefulness.

Achieving Responsible Adulthood

Because of the evidence that emotional maturity and decision-making have been impacted by the early age of substance abuse, a key mission in rehab should be to guide the young person toward learning how to manage adult life. Being emotionally ill-prepared for adulthood, they need mentoring and practical life skills training to function successfully in society. These young adults can be taught how to handle their finances, create a resume, and interview for a job. They need to establish healthy habits and learn to abide by a daily schedule.  By learning how to conduct themselves as mature adults, they can begin to experience positive and productive changes in their daily lives. A variety of evidence-based treatment methods can be combined to effectively nurture the young adult in recovery toward becoming a responsible, functioning adult. These include:


Offering a variety of therapeutic approaches allows the treatment plan to be tailored to the client’s specific needs. Cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, solutions-based therapy, contingency management, and others may be provided in individual or group formats. Conjoint therapy sessions are offered to address the role of the family.

Interpersonal skills.

Teaching young adults emotionally stuck in early adolescence how to relate effectively and compassionately with others is a key life skill that will help open doors for them.

Life skills.

Discovering purpose, talents, passions, sharpening skills, and funneling these into real-world goals should be a priority in effective outpatient rehab for young adults and should include academic or career goals that are realistic and achievable.

Restore physical health.

Revamping your daily diet away from junk and high-fat foods and learning to eat a balanced diet is essential in restoring health and vitality.  Regular exercise and outdoor activities boost endorphins, build muscle and stamina, and improve sleep and overall wellbeing.

Holistic activities.

Addiction recovery should involve healing the mind, body, and spirit.  Engaging in stress-reducing activities, such as yoga, mindfulness exercises, and meditation can help create a more positive attitude that leads to better decision-making.

Support for parents.

You don’t have to navigate these uncertain waters alone. Whether your loved one is ready to get help or not, you can find support through PALS (parents of addicted loved ones and Alanon family groups.

When your son is ready.

Cornerstone Healing Center Helps Young Addicts Launch Into Recovery & Adulthood. Cornerstone Healing Center offers a progressive and customized approach to outpatient addiction treatment. Located in Scottsdale, Arizona, Cornerstone Healing Center specializes in guiding young adults towards becoming responsible, functioning adults in recovery. Addressing all aspects of the person—mind, body, and spirit—the multi-disciplinary program engages each client with respect and compassion. Clients will be equipped with a renewed sense of purpose, short and long-term goals, and the life skills necessary for a fulfilling and productive life. For more information, please contact Cornerstone Healing Center today at (800) 643-2108

Let us help you start your journey to recovery.

Get compassionate evidence- based and trauma focused substance abuse treatment in Arizona.

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Julie Miller

Recovery Writer and Advocate

Julie is a recovery advocate, with over two years sober. She is a recovery speaker who believes people can change for the better. Her mission is to write factual, helpful information about addiction, treatment, and recovery. She believes that no one should be left in the dark about the process at any stage of their recovery.
lionel estrada lisac clinical director

Clinical Reviewer, Clinical Director

Lionel, a Licensed Independent Substance Abuse Counselor (LISAC) with over 4 years at Cornerstone. Passionate about helping those with addiction, he has trained as an EMDR therapist  adopting a trauma-informed approach to treat the underlying issues of addiction, providing an empathetic approach to addiction.

Articles written prior to August 2023 were also clinically reviewed by Karen Williams, LPC 

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