What Is Peter Pan Syndrome?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated May 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

If you’re not familiar with the children’s story of Peter Pan, he is a boy who never wants to grow up, and he lives in a magical place called Neverland where he stays young forever. Though the character might be fictional, so-called Peter Pan Syndrome is real. If you or a loved one are experiencing this, you can learn what causes it, what the symptoms look like, and how to overcome not wanting to grow up.   

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What is Peter Pan syndrome?

Peter Pan syndrome, as you may have guessed, is a term used to describe when an adult doesn't want to mature, live in the adult world, and take on adult responsibilities, such as dealing with personal finances, romantic relationships, career goals, and complex obligations like home ownership.

Peter Pan Syndrome is a pop psychology syndrome, not a mental health condition listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or recognized by the World Health Organization, meaning there is no way to receive a formal diagnosis, and there are no official symptoms or treatments. It may present itself differently from person to person, but generally speaking, people with Peter Pan Syndrome tend to not want to enter adult life. They may not work or take on many responsibilities and may experience difficulty with moving forward in life.

As this cannot result in an official diagnosis, it can be hard to tell who may be experiencing it. Just because someone has childlike tendencies, such as curiosity and a healthy sense of humor (or even negative childlike behaviors such as emotional outbursts), doesn't mean they have Peter Pan Syndrome.

Peter Pan Syndrome is typically used to describe men more often than women, perhaps because of pervasive gender stereotypes about men in today’s society. However, it should be noted that, regardless of gender roles and expectations, anyone of any gender can demonstrate signs of avoiding adult responsibility. 

Causes

It's hard to tell what exactly causes someone to want to avoid responsibilities on a significant level, but there are a few theories.

A spoiled childhood

You may know someone whose parents rarely said "no." Such permissive parents may have seldom disciplined their children or taught them life skills, and when the children became adults, their family members may have still coddled them, perhaps providing them with ongoing financial support. While children should have a childhood to call their own, being raised without any boundaries can lead to not wanting to take responsibility in adulthood. The sudden shift from having everything done for you to needing to work and pay bills can be jarring for many people. Children raised in this manner were not gradually introduced to adult concepts and avoidance – coupled with enabling from others – kept them from transitioning into functioning adults.

An abusive childhood

Not everyone with Peter Pan Syndrome grew up in a permissive household. On the other end of the spectrum, experiencing abuse at a young age may lead children to feel they need to "catch up" on their childhood once they become an adult. These “Peter Pans” may regress back into childlike behaviors once they are away from their parents and have more control over their lives. Perhaps the most famous example is the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. In a personal interview, Jackson said that he lived through an abusive childhood where he was pushed to be a star. As he grew up, he wanted to regress 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 (some scholars have posited that Jackson also may have experienced symptoms of a formal mental health condition: narcissistic personality disorder).

Yearning for nostalgia

Feeling nostalgic for your childhood is a phenomenon experienced by many people, not just those who have Peter Pan Syndrome. Many adults continue to reflect fondly on their childhoods long after they have assumed full adult responsibilities. However, someone with Peter Pan Syndrome can become obsessed with this feeling and attempt to recreate it. It's okay to be nostalgic, but when you're spending all of your time idealizing the past and you view the present as somehow lesser or negative, you may be experiencing Peter Pan Syndrome.

Economic distress

The lingering economic fallout of the Great Recession and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, continue to take a toll on society. Many workers are faced with long hours, little pay, and greater difficulty with reaching and progressing toward life goals due to these factors. If one cannot progress, one may instead regress. Some adults may feel they need an escape from their lives and their realities. Escapism can be helpful from time to time, but when you are consistently not taking on any responsibilities in your life, it can become a problem.

Adult skills not being taught

You may have heard of the term "adulting", often used to describe basic adult skills such as making your own doctor's appointment, doing your taxes, and paying your bills. Many schools do not teach such adult skills, including how to become a productive member of society. Because some people feel ill-equipped to be adults, they may choose instead to not take on adult responsibilities.

Symptoms

As this is not a clinically classified diagnosis, there is no official list of symptoms to identify individuals who have this condition. However, there are a few generally accepted symptoms:

Lack of career interest

It’s understandable why a person would not be interested in having a career if they do not enjoy their job or see others struggling with work fulfillment. However, someone with Peter Pan Syndrome may be unmotivated to work any sort of job, even one that interests them. When they do have a job, they may slack off, put little effort into advancing their careers, or continually be fired from different jobs. Or they may have a part-time job and refuse to work full-time.

Inability to handle difficult situations

As adults, we face stressful situations that we must learn how to handle. A person with Peter Pan Syndrome may find it hard to deal with these situations. Instead, they may throw an adult tantrum, or they may yell to resolve problems instead of having a proper conversation, or they may simply avoid the problem altogether.

Trouble with commitment

Someone with Peter Pan Syndrome may be interested in relationships or sex, but not for long. They may enter into casual relationships or promise that they'll be committed, then break up with their partner after a short period. While there are plenty of reasons why people may not want to be in a committed relationship, such behavior can also sometimes be a symptom of Peter Pan Syndrome.

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Drug and alcohol abuse 

Alcoholism and addiction is not uncommon for adults who have Peter Pan Syndrome. Such adults often want an escape, and alcohol or drugs provide it. During a person's teens and early adulthood, many people may party, drink a lot, and experiment with drugs. However, if this behavior is still regularly happening far into adulthood, it may be a sign of an addiction or an avoidance of adult responsibilities.

Unreliability

Someone with Peter Pan Syndrome is often unreliable. They may promise to do something for you, and when the time comes, they're nowhere to be found. If they make social plans, they may consistently bail.

Belief that “it's everyone else's fault” 

Taking responsibility is a difficult thing for many people to do, but someone with Peter Pan Syndrome may rarely or never take responsibility for their actions or mistakes. Instead, negative situations are typically considered to be another person's fault, even if all the evidence points to the person with Peter Pan Syndrome. 

No desire for improvement

Finally, someone with Peter Pan Syndrome usually doesn't want to improve themselves. They may never self-correct or want to grow as a person. Instead, they may want to remain as carefree as possible with as few responsibilities for the foreseeable future.

Some adults may have a few symptoms or tendencies listed above but may not be full-blown examples of Peter Pan Syndrome or similar health conditions. Peter Pan Syndrome may also occur alongside formal mental health conditions, such as substance use disorder (as referenced above) or eating disorders. As this isn't a recognized syndrome, assessing symptoms can be a bit subjective. However, if an adult exhibits these symptoms to an extreme degree, they may be experiencing this condition.

How to help people 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 people with Peter Pan syndrome move in the right direction, form healthy relationships, develop adult responsibilities, and cope with mental and social health challenges. 

Stop enabling the person

Do not give them support unless they support you back. Healthy relationships are reciprocal, not one-sided. Enabling behaviors are such a large part of Peter Pan syndrome that some psychologists use the term “Wendy syndrome” or “Wendy dilemma” to describe someone (usually a woman) who “mothers” the person experiencing Peter Pan Syndrome to the point where they do not need to take any responsibility for their actions. If you’re experiencing “Wendy syndrome,” you may consider working with a therapist to discuss how to have healthy relationships and improve your parenting styles in the long term. 

Gradually introduce adult concepts

As an example, you can encourage the person experiencing Peter Pan Syndrome to apply for a job with few responsibilities and then gradually increase their workload.

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 responsibility.

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Don’t want to grow up?

Therapy can help 

One of the best ways for someone to better understand and change maladaptive behaviors is through seeking therapy. It may take some time, but you can help a Peter Pan mature into a functioning, healthy adult. 

Since Peter Pan Syndrome is not a clinically recognized medical diagnosis, there is no “official” treatment, but some types of therapy – including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)  and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) – have been shown to help. CBT helps patients learn to think differently about situations, whereas DBT is a form of CBT designed especially for those individuals with more extreme emotions. 

Medically-reviewed studies have found that CBT (and other therapies) are just as effective online as in-person, and that the online format can offer some unique advantages, such as the ability to meet with a counselor from the convenience of home or to find and utilize a specialist outside of your home community. For example, if you live in a big city, like New York City, you can meet with a therapist without getting stuck on a waitlist for providers who take your insurance. 

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.

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"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."

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Takeaway

Peter Pan Syndrome may sound like something from a fairytale, but it can 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 can take a real toll on someone’s quality of life. However, with a little work and, if you’re ready, the help of a BetterHelp counselor, it's possible to overcome this syndrome and live a happy, independent life.
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