Hikikomori is a Japanese term that describes a mental health condition that causes a person to shut themselves away from society. They often spend months or years in their houses or bedroom. They do not speak to others or interact with anyone. In Japan, the official definition of Hikikomori refers to a person who has not left their homes or engaged in social interaction for at least six months.
Staggeringly, there may be as many as 1,550,000 (1.55 million) Hikikomori and near-Hikikomori in Japan today.
While the hikikomori phenomenon may be more pronounced in Japan, the experience of “failure to launch” in Western societies shares many of the same characteristics. In New York, a man in his thirties was taken to court because he refused to leave his parent’s home, work, or contribute to the house.
When young adults stay at home without a job or searching for a job, don’t contribute financially, don’t develop meaningful romantic relationships, and withdraw in part or fully from friends and social activities — parents and young adults experience profound feelings of failure.
We expect our young men and women to become independent, productive adults. When they don’t, the gap between expectations and reality feeds a downward spiral of blaming others, loss of motivation, and increasing isolation.
For some Jewish emerging adults, the factors contributing to hikikomori may be even more pronounced than for the general population in the United States, Canada, and other Western countries. In Jewish communities, the expectations for our young adults are often higher and — in many cases — just unrealistic.
Not every Jewish young adult will be a financial wizard, start a unicorn tech company before the age of 19, be a scholar, excel in the Ivy League, or make Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list. When expectations are “be amazing”, it’s easy to get paralyzed.
Celebrity culture, tech or finance billionaires in their twenties, worship of academic achievement, and fetishization of professional success all contribute to creating an expectation of perfection. These may not be messages that your family fully adopts, but they are pervasive in our culture and especially pronounced in Jewish communities. In fact, anecdotal reports for wilderness outdoor programs in the United States targeted at emerging young adults who are stuck describe 50% or more of the participants as coming from Jewish homes.
When the gap between your child’s abilities and his own demands for perfection, or for the unattainable, becomes too large, a retreat to the basement may seem like a reasonable response.
When to be supportive, and when to draw the line?
Often, I meet emerging adults who are stuck and intelligent, detached from reality and articulate. Failure to launch can come with grandiose goals (producing major films or launching an amazing startup), inchoate planning, and lots of blame. If your child is living in your basement, but actually executing a plan, he is not experiencing a failure to launch. If your child is dabbling while talking up excuses and blaming others for why he is not moving forward, then consider failure to launch.
Ask yourself: does my child
- Blame others for being stuck (unfair teachers, unreasonable bosses)?
- Take only superficial steps (or no steps) to realize his goals?
- Articulate grandiose ambitions (driving the most expensive car, earning triple-digit income without investing in himself first)?
- Limit involvement with family, friends, and community?
- Live as a freeloader?
If you tended to answer “yes”, you may need to take steps to reorient your child’s trajectory.
Is hikikomori a form of mental illness?
While hikikomori-type behavior may be associated with mental illness, many young adults who experience a failure to launch are not suffering from a mental disorder. Many withdraw from society in response to bullying or harassment. If a young person does not have the skills to cope with stress, or if they are unable to form healthy relationships, they often feel helpless. In these cases, they can choose to shut themselves off from society.
While full-blown mental illness is often not the factor driving failure to launch, emerging adults who get stuck often experience one or more challenges, including:
- General or social anxiety
- Low self-esteem
- Learning or attention problems
- Substance abuse
- Lack of social skills
- Problems with executive function
- Lack of motivation
Do parents need to intervene?
Young adults who fail to leave home and do not build a life for themselves, create emotional and financial challenges for themselves and their families. They are out of sync with expectations of society and their own needs. Once initial milestones are not met, the gap between goals and abilities widens and it becomes progressively more difficult to reach personal fulfillment.
Delaying intervention frequently deepens the challenges. Once you are sure that your child is experiencing failure-to-launch, intervention is called for.
How do we help our young adults grow up?
Young adults who fail to launch need to face the natural and practical consequences of life. They need clear responsibilities.
Given the range of emotional factors that fuel failure to launch, personalized therapy and constructive support need to be part of the solution.
Therapy can help with increasing awareness of emotions and negative thinking. In therapy, the young adult can learn coping and problem-solving skills. Therapy can help develop the ability to manage inner challenges (such as managing thoughts and emotions) and outer challenges (such as organization and developing the confidence to try new things).
Replacing the negative spiral with movement towards independent adult living
In our program at UCanachieve, therapy addresses underlying issues such as managing depression and anxiety. As the emerging adult gains competency in dealing with life’s challenges and uncertainty, he becomes more equipped to move forward towards productive independent adulthood.
In parallel to therapy, at UCanachieve we work on developing new skills and creating the experience of success. The result is increased motivation and optimism, which feeds a positive cycle of willingness to take new risks and develop new capabilities.
- Teo, A. R., & Gaw, A. C. (2010). Hikikomori, a Japanese culture-bound syndrome of social withdrawal? A proposal for DSM-V. The Journal of nervous and mental disease, 198(6), 444.
- Itou, Junichirou (2003). Shakaiteki Hikikomori Wo Meguru Tiiki Seisin Hoken Katudou No Guide-line [Guideline on Mental Health Activities in Communities for Social Withdrawal] (in Japanese). Tokyo: Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare.