Peter Pan Syndrome: The Science Behind It, What It Is & How To Treat It
By: Stephanie Kirby
Updated July 03, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn
We all know the story of Peter Pan, or at least the gist of it. Peter Pan is a boy who never wants to grow up, and he lives in Neverland, where he stays young forever. Though the character might be fictional, Peter Pan Syndrome is real, and if you are dealing with this condition, you can learn to overcome it.
What's Peter Pan Syndrome all about?
Peter Pan Syndrome, as you may have guessed, is when an adult doesn't want to mature and take on the responsibilities of someone their age. Peter Pan Syndrome is a pop psychology syndrome that isn't listed in any diagnostic manual, and how Peter Pan Syndrome presents itself may vary from person to person. The typical sufferer, however, is someone (usually a man) who does not want to enter adult life. They may not work or take any responsibilities, and they desire everyone around them to support their lifestyle. We'll cover more of the details of Peter Pan Syndrome in the rest of this article to make it easy for you to recognize.
As this syndrome is not official, it's hard to tell who suffers from it. Just because someone has childlike tendencies, such as curiosity, a sense of humor, or love for certain things associated with a child, it doesn't mean they have Peter Pan Syndrome.
The Cause Of Peter Pan Syndrome
It's hard to tell what exactly would cause someone to want to avoid responsibilities to this great a scale, but there are a few theories, which will be outlined below.
A Spoiled Childhood. We all know someone whose parents never said "no." They may have never disciplined their child or taught them any life skills, and when they became adults, the parents still coddled them. While children should have a childhood to call their own, being too spoiled can lead to not wanting to take responsibilities. The sudden shift from having everything done for you to having to work and pay bills is jarring for many people. Instead of gradually being introduced to adult concepts, there were no dipping toes in the pool for this person and avoidance coupled with enabling from others keeps this person from transitioning into a functioning adult.
An Abusive Childhood. On the other end of the spectrum, someone who was abused as a child may feel like they need to "catch up" on their childhood once they become an adult. They're away from their parents and can do whatever they want, so they may regress into a child in order to feel safe. Perhaps the most famous example is the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. He lived an abusive childhood and was forced to be a star. As he grew up, he wanted to regress back into the role of a child. He named his estate the Neverland Ranch, and it wasn't unheard of for him to dress up as Peter Pan.
Yearning For Nostalgia. Feeling nostalgic for your childhood is a trait shared by many people- not just those who have Peter Pan Syndrome. There is something comforting in remembering and wanting things from when you were growing up. However, for someone with Peter Pan Syndrome, they can become obsessed with this feeling. You can't use social media without seeing post after post about how everything was better when you were a child. They promote shows, music, and games from that era, and many people discuss how society has changed for the worse. It's okay to be nostalgic, but when you're spending your time looking back too much in the past, you may not see what's ahead of you or fear to embrace the changes in the world.
Economic Hopelessness. Not everyone gets to have the best job in the world, but in recent years, jobs and their paychecks seem to be taking their toll on those in the workforce. Workers are faced with long hours, little pay, the inability to reach and progress towards life goals. If one cannot progress, they may instead regress. They need an escape from their life and its realities. Escapism can be a good thing, but when you're not taking any responsibilities, it can become a huge problem.
Adult Skills Not Being Taught. You may have heard the term "adulting" before. This is a term used to describe basic adult skills and adult trials. Examples of this include making your own doctor's appointment, doing your taxes, and paying your bills. The term is mostly used ironically, but some people are serious about it. In today's world, it's easy to see why. Many schools don't teach adult skills. Another joke that occurs is how a person wasn't taught to do their taxes or apply for a mortgage, but they know that mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell. While learning science is important, many schools seem to forget about teaching kids how to become a productive member of society. Because people feel ill equipped to be an adult and see themselves as lacking these skills, some choose instead to not take on adult responsibilities.
These are just a few reasons why Peter Pan Syndrome may occur. As we said, this isn't an officially recognized disorder, so it's all speculative.
Symptoms of Peter Pan Syndrome
How can you know if you or someone has Peter Pan Syndrome? Due to the fact that this is not a clinically classified syndrome, there is no official list of symptoms to identify individuals who have this condition. Just because someone has childlike tendencies, such as curiosity, a sense of humor, or love for certain things more associated with children than adults, it doesn't mean they have Peter Pan Syndrome. Below are a few symptoms and their explanations.
Lack Of Career Interest. Most jobs are not fun. There are few jobs where a person wants to come in every day and stay there for hours, and on top of that, most jobs don't have pay that satisfies. It's understandable why a person would not be interested in having a career. However, it's a part of life. Someone with Peter Pan Syndrome may be unmotivated to get a job. When they do have a job, they may slack off and put no effort into advancing their careers or continually get fired from different jobs. Or they may have a part-time job and refuse to work full-time; without having to work full time, they can still participate in escapism.
Not Being Able To Handle Situations. As adults, we are all faced with situations, and we must learn how to handle them. From arguments to stresses, a person will learn how to deal with them. However, one with Peter Pan Syndrome may find it hard to deal with these situations. Instead, they may scream and throw an adult tantrum, or they may yell at the person instead of having a proper conversation to resolve the problem. Everyone has their occasional breakdowns, so just because someone did this once, it doesn't mean they have Peter Pan Syndrome. However, if a person is constantly refusing to solve problems, then this may be due to Peter Pan Syndrome.
Trouble With Commitment. Someone with Peter Pan Syndrome may be interested in relationships or sex but not for long. They may get into casual relationships or promise that they'll be committed, but then break up with their partner after a short period. Some people do have trouble staying committed. Some people want to be wild in their youth and then settle down later. But if one doesn't want to have a long-term relationship all their life, they may have Peter Pan Syndrome.
Drug And Alcohol Abuse. Alcoholism is not uncommon for adults who have Peter Pan Syndrome. They want an escape and what better way to escape than to drink some alcohol or take some drugs? During a person's teens and early adulthood, it's common for a person to party, drink a lot, and experiment with drugs. However, if this is still happening far into adulthood, then the person either has an addiction or doesn't want to sober up and take on adult responsibilities.
Unreliable. Everyone has flaked out of doing something every once in a while, but someone with Peter Pan Syndrome seems to always be unreliable. They may promise to do something for you, and when the time comes, they're nowhere to be found. They may make an underwhelming excuse or be someone who doesn't bring it up at all. Look for this to be a constant pattern in a person's life.
It's Everyone Else's Fault. Someone with Peter Pan Syndrome may not ever take the blame upon themselves. Instead, it's another person's fault, even if all the evidence points to the person with Peter Pan Syndrome. Taking responsibility is a difficult thing for many people to do, but if someone never takes responsibility, they may be the real-life version of Peter Pan.
Doesn't Want To Improve. Finally, someone with Peter Pan Syndrome usually doesn't want to improve themselves. They never self-correct or want to grow as a person. Instead, they want to be an irresponsible adult forever.
These are just a few examples. Some adults may have a few symptoms or tendencies but may not be a full-blown Peter Pan. As this isn't a recognized symptom, it's a bit subjective if a person has it or not. However, if they exhibit these symptoms to an extreme degree, it is likely they have this condition.
How To Help Someone with Peter Pan Syndrome
If a person is hardwired to be childlike, it may be difficult for them to grow up. However, there are a few ways to help them move in the right direction.
- Stop enabling the person. Do not give them handouts or support unless they support you back.
- Gradually introduce adult concepts. For example, when it comes to a job, have them apply for an easy job and then move on up.
- Remove distractions from their life. While distractions are good in moderation, you don't want someone with Peter Pan Syndrome to constantly spend their time on social media or playing video games instead of taking responsibilities.
Therapy Can Help
One of the best ways to treat someone's behavior is to seek counseling. If your child or partner has a hard time growing up, couple or family therapy may be the solution. It may take a bit, but you can turn Peter Pan into an adult. If you are the one that is suffering from Peter Pan Syndrome, you don't have to stay stuck in that place. It can seem intimidating to start making the necessary changes to grow up, but that's what life is all about. Think of all the things you could be missing out on by staying stuck. Talking with a therapist online can help you to learn coping skills to move out of your comfort zone and into life as an adult. BetterHelp is a hub to help you search for and connect with the right counselor for you. You can look for someone who specializes in your area of need and talk to them from wherever you are, whenever you need to. Read reviews of our online counselors below, from people experiencing similar issues.
"Heather has been unbelievably helpful in helping me with the things that I came into counseling for and even more I wasn't aware of. She remembered, months later, why I came in and even pointed out ways in which I had grown. I'm unbelievably grateful for her and this service because this was my first time doing therapy."
"Working with Kelly is really great! She makes sure you always move at your own pace and never rushes you or pushes you but also holds you accountable which really helps. She is really understanding and kind, always empathizes with you and encourages you. Really great time and she has helped me a lot!"
What is Peter Pan Syndrome symptoms?
Many of the symptoms of Peter Pan Syndrome are listed above. However, here is a quick list so you can easily see it in one place:
- Having little interest in work or advancing a career
- Not being able to handle difficult situations
- Trouble with commitment
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Refusal of taking responsibility for their actions
- Show little interest to improve
- Not doing household tasks
- Lack of financial responsibility
- Overall failure to launch
Is Peter Pan Syndrome a mental disorder?
Peter Pan Syndrome is not a diagnosable mental health disorder such as a personality disorder. It’s more of a pattern of behavior of avoiding responsibility and accountability in life. Some of the same treatment options for mental health disorders could help those with Peter Pan Syndrome such as therapy. However, it will not come with a diagnosis.
How do you deal with Peter Pan Syndrome?
If you feel that you’re struggling with Peter Pan Syndrome, therapy can play an important role in helping you to overcome it. Spending time learning where your struggle is coming from can help you learn what steps you need to take in order to work past it. A therapist can also help you to see what simple actions you can start to take that can build upon each other to help you move forward.
If you believe that someone in your life is dealing with Peter Pan Syndrome, it can be impacting you in a negative way. And it can be upsetting to watch the effect that it’s having on their life as well. Unfortunately, it may be unlikely that the person will want to make a change unless they are forced to. If you continue to support them and pick up their slack, it can contribute to Peter Pan Syndrome. They probably aren’t going to be motivated to make changes or set life goals. It may be helpful for you to set boundaries around what you’re willing to do. If you allow them to start feeling the negative impact of their decisions, it could help them to start desiring to make a change.
Can a woman have Peter Pan Syndrome?
While Peter Pan Syndrome is commonly attributed to men, that’s not always the case. Women can experience it as well. They have the same symptoms that men experience. Women that are dealing with the syndrome may come across as self-centered. They tend to think the world revolves around them and they know how to get people to do things for them, so they don’t have to.
What is Wendy Syndrome?
Every Peter Pan needs a Wendy. Wendy Syndrome is when someone seeks approval from others to the point that they take on roles or tasks that they shouldn’t in order to make life easier for the person with Peter Pan syndrome. Men tend to fall towards the Peter Pan role. Insecure women tend to take on the role of Wendy.
Some of the symptoms of Wendy syndrome include:
- Doesn’t know their own opinions about things and takes on the opinion of others
- Believes that the other person needs their help to survive
- Needing the approval of another person for their self-worth
- Overprotective of their “Peter Pan”
If a parent struggles with Wendy Syndrome, they can lead children to develop Peter Pan syndrome.
If you believe that you might be struggling with Wendy Syndrome, talking to a therapist can help you learn to identify your behaviors and help you make positive changes.
What are the signs of emotional immaturity?
Peter Pans can struggle with emotional immaturity. They might not know how to handle difficult emotions and do what they can to avoid them. This can look like:
- Avoiding talking about serious conversations
- Lack of commitment
- Laughing off more serious situations
- Use diversion tactics to get out of uncomfortable conversations
- Keep conversations at surface level
What is immature personality disorder?
Immature Personality Disorder is not listed in the DSM, but it is listed in the World Health Organization’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems 10th Revision. The symptoms are the basic symptoms that go along with immaturity. It’s similar to the way that a small child behaves. If things don’t go their way, they may get angry, upset, or act out to show their frustration. They may be unable to deal with stress and difficult situation in a healthy way.
While this is not the exact same thing as Peter Pan Syndrome, there is a lack of immaturity that keeps Pans stuck where they are.
At what age does a man mature mentally?
A study was completed that found the average age that men mature is in their late 30s to early 40s, about a decade after the average age that women mature. However, it’s important to note that there are levels of maturity that men reach before this age. While this might be around when some men reach their highest level of maturity, they should be able to take responsibility for their actions and achieve successes in life before this point. This doesn’t mean that men aren’t “mature” before their early 40’s, just that this might be when they reach the highest level.
How do you develop emotional maturity?
One of the first things that a person can do to develop emotional maturity is to learn how to recognize and acknowledge their own feelings and emotions. Learning what the emotions feel like in your body can help you to become more emotionally mature. When you know the different triggers that you have and the way that your emotions impact you, it can allow you to control your behavior instead of being controlled by your emotions.
Peter Pan Syndrome may sound like something from a fairytale, but it's actually something that has the ability to cause grown adults to miss out on the best parts of life. While it may be fun to read about the character in the book, Peter Pan Syndrome is not fun and games. However, with a little work, on your own and with the help of a counselor, it's possible to overcome it and live a successful life.