We all know the story of the little boy who didn’t want to grow up, but what about the adults who are still clinging onto their childhoods?
While it’s not a medically recognized term, it’s a very real condition. So, in this article we’re going to look into Peter Pan Syndrome, and what you can do it about it.
What is Peter Pan syndrome?
Do you know someone who never fully engages with the world? Someone who never seems to settle in a job, never has enough money, and is always one step behind everyone else?
Someone who scoffs at the idea of having a family, but always seems to be lonely?
Someone who drinks too much to try and get away from it all?
If yes, then you might know someone with Peter Pan syndrome.
People with Peter Pan syndrome don’t want to take on the responsibilities of adult life, looking always to escape from the world rather than to be part of it.
They don’t want to grow up and work hard. Like the boy in the book, they believe that:
“Dreams do come true, if only we wish hard enough.” – JM Barrie Peter Pan
We got in touch with clinical psychologist and mental health therapist Aura Priscel, a contributor to Psychology Degree Guide, to find out how the syndrome is defined in psychological terms:
“While not an official medical diagnosis, Peter Pan syndrome describes people who psychologically remain in childhood even after becoming adults.
They avoid taking on adult commitments and responsibilities, choosing to live as if they were children. This type of disorder is more common in men, but can apply to women as well (the “Wendy” syndrome).”
Sadly, many never achieve their potential in their careers, and they fail to develop meaningful relationships.
They turn from bright, promising 20-year olds into rootless, unhappy 40-year olds and miserable, bitter 60-year olds.
For those around them, Peter Pan syndrome is frustrating and often incredibly damaging.
The partners and friends of Peter Pans often end up picking up after them — dealing with adult life so they don’t have to.
In the end, respect dies and so does love.
Sound familiar? If you think your partner or someone you know is a Peter Pan, read on.
We’ll take you through all the symptoms of Peter Pan syndrome and then show you what you can do to encourage them to change.
The symptoms of Peter Pan syndrome
The signs and symptoms of Peter Pan syndrome are all related to an inability to handle the normal world of work and relationships, and a need to escape from adulthood as far as possible.
Dr. Priscel explains the most common symptoms of the syndrome:
“The inability to fulfill obligations and the feeling they’re still a child are some of the main characteristics of this disorder.
A person with Peter Pan syndrome does not want to take responsibility for themselves, preferring others to take care of them, and may be selfish and narcissistic. They can act like a spoiled child when they don’t get what they want, and in many cases can be rebellious.”
As Dr. Priscel mentioned, most people with Peter Pan syndrome are men, according to research published by the University of Granada, though it can sometimes affect women too.
Let’s look a bit deeper into the symptoms:
1) Fail to build a stable career
People with Peter Pan syndrome struggle to have successful careers. They might have the ability to be successful, but they don’t put in the work they need to make use of their ability.
According to Marty Nemko in Psychology Today, he finds that lack of success can often be caused by “The Peter Pan Syndrome.”
Those with Peter Pan syndrome often lose their jobs because of their poor performance and some will spend long periods unemployed. Those that do keep their jobs will struggle to progress.
They might, for example, frequently miss deadlines and fail to check their work or carry out research.
They will usually struggle to build networks as they can’t see the value of doing so, and often see this as unnecessarily difficult work for no immediate return.
They don’t see the value in working hard — a little bit like a schoolboy who doesn’t understand why they need to learn their multiplication tables.
2) Show a lack of financial responsibility
One of the reasons that careers are often unimportant to those with Peter Pan syndrome is that they can be genuinely uninterested in the usual trappings of “adult” success.
According to practical psychology experts, Hack Spirit, “Men with Peter Pan syndrome are often immature and they don’t pay their bills.”
The idea of taking on a mortgage or putting money into a savings account is simply seen as dull and irrelevant, so they don’t do it and don’t plan for it.
3) Jump between jobs, hobbies, and interests
People with Peter Pan syndrome rarely stick with anything for very long. If they do manage to find some career success, they tend to get bored with their job and decide they want to do something else, whatever the consequences.
The same applies to hobbies and other projects. People with Peter Pan syndrome will often take up a new hobby overnight and with extreme enthusiasm and then drop it just as quickly as they started, even if they’ve spent considerable amounts of money on it.
This is much the same as a child who begs their parents to pay for the latest new toy and then leaves it gathering dust after a week.
4) Cling to an unrealistic goal…without ever working towards it
Those with Peter Pan syndrome often believe that they have a talent or vocation to achieve great things one day.
They might want to be an actor, or a musician, or a hot-shot scientist. Because they have this ambition, they’ll write off as unimportant any failures in the career they do have.
But they tend not to recognize that to achieve big, difficult goals takes drive, motivation, and lots of hard work.
They often assume that those who have been successful in their chosen field have been so simply because of their natural talent, rather than because they’ve also worked extremely hard.
5) Tend to fall into traditional gender roles
Both men and women can have Peter Pan syndrome, but most are men.
This is thought to be partly because traditional gender roles mean that women are forced to grow up.
Even women without children are often expected to care for elderly parents or younger siblings.
Women are often socialized to feel responsible for other people’s feelings in a way that men are generally not.
Men with Peter Pan syndrome who have female partners will usually leave most or all of the household work and childcare to their partner, especially if these partners are alpha females.
They often get away with this because others simply see it as a ‘normal’ gender role split (though taken to an extreme).
6) Struggle with housework and chores
When they do carry out housework or other ‘life admin’ — things like paying bills and getting the shopping — people with Peter Pan syndrome struggle.
They’ll tend to leave ordinary domestic tasks undone, even when it’s obvious that they need to be done.
They might leave the trash overflowing without taking it out, or just wash the one plate they need rather than tackling the stack of washing by the sink.
Everyone has days when they run out of clean underwear or decide to go to bed early without tidying the kitchen, but those with Peter Pan syndrome will repeatedly fail to organize their homes and lives.
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After all, chores aren’t fun…and Peter Pans just want to have fun.
7) Show little interest in relationships or having a family
Those with Peter Pan syndrome who have partners will usually expect them to take on most of the domestic load, including looking after children.
But often, people with Peter Pan syndrome won’t have a partner and will struggle to develop long-term, loving relationships. They won’t be interested in having children.
That’s not surprising — settling down with a spouse and a family is seen as the pinnacle of adulthood.
It usually requires the ability to plan ahead and, ideally, to have a stable income.
As people with Peter Pan syndrome struggle with finances and careers, having a family and children will often seem like a bad idea.
Sometimes, people with Peter Pan syndrome will seek out much younger partners, particularly in their thirties and forties.
This, they believe, will take the pressure off them to settle down and will sometimes even provide them with a whole group of much younger friends, allowing them to pretend they’re young, too.
8) Feel nostalgic for the past while fearing the future
It’s not surprising that Peter Pans will often fear the future. Their inability to plan for it means that the future feels like a big unknown, with the inevitability of aging terrifying them.
As they get older, Peter Pans will often think back with increasing nostalgia to a time when they were younger and, at least in their minds, happier.
They struggle to accept the reality of time passing, and this struggle is compounded by their lack of action to make provision for the future.
Things like pensions and a will absolutely terrify them. No one relishes writing their will — but most of us do it anyway. Peter Pans feel like they just can’t.
9) Drink to excess and take drugs
Being unable to accept reality and the anxiety that inevitably brings means that Peter Pans often self-medicate with alcohol and drugs.
Being drunk or high is a means of escape that allows them to put off thinking about the future for another day.
They’ll also often drink to excess as a means of trying to recapture a lost youth. While there’s no reason anyone has to hang up their dancing boots at any age, most people will naturally slow down their social life as they get older.
Those with Peter Pan syndrome often don’t. They’ll be the oldest guy in the room at a party, desperately trying to keep up with people 10 or 20 years younger.
10) Blame others for their lack of achievement
People with Peter Pan syndrome struggle to achieve their potential because they fail to take responsibility for their own achievement.
The trouble is, they can’t see that. They’ll often look at people around them who have achieved much more than they have and feel upset that they haven’t been able to do the same.
They don’t recognize that the reason those people have achieved much more than they have is that they put the work in.
Because they’re so bad at taking responsibility for themselves, they’ll seek to shift the blame onto someone else — their parents, their partner, their boss, their colleagues, or even their kids.
Someone, somewhere, will have done something that has stopped them from making the most of their lives.
What Peter Pan syndrome isn’t
If you’re reading this and thinking, “I don’t always work as hard as I should” or “I’m not sure if I want to have kids” and wondering if this means you have Peter Pan syndrome, stop worrying.
Everyone has times when they don’t feel like adulting. Everyone has days when they wish they could just get their mom to do it all for them. Most people are sometimes unsure about the future.
All these things are normal and healthy. Childhood is fun and occasionally wishing you could be back there is fine.
People with Peter Pan syndrome consistently fail to behave like adults in all areas of their lives over many years. That’s not the same as sometimes eating cold pizza for breakfast.
It’s also worth mentioning that liking childlike things isn’t Peter Pan syndrome.
An adult man who still has a box of comics under the bed or whose eyes light up when they see a train set isn’t a Peter Pan.
Someone with lots of childish hobbies might be more likely to have Peter Pan syndrome, but it’s not a given.
What causes Peter Pan syndrome?
Peter Pan syndrome isn’t a medically recognized syndrome, but it is an instantly recognizable set of behaviors to anyone who’s ever met someone with it.
There are Peter Pans everywhere…but why? What causes one person to grow up into a responsible adult and the other not to?
Dr. Priscel explains some of the potential causes of the syndrome:
“Peter Pan syndrome can stem from difficulties relating to others, struggles with fears and phobias, and the inability to cope effectively with problems and challenges.
Sometimes a person with Peter Pan syndrome has lived such a happy childhood that they don’t want to leave it. In other cases, they feel they haven’t had the opportunity to experience a childhood like other children and decide to recreate it even though they are now adults.”
The truth is, there may be lots of complex causes.
But for most Peter Pans, their parents were likely overprotective or otherwise failed to prepare them for adult life.
It could also be that some people with Peter Pan syndrome have suffered abuse and that, as they grow older, they struggle to operate in the adult world because they simply don’t feel ready for it.
They missed out on their childhood as children, and so spend their adulthood trying to reclaim it.
Many people with Peter Pan syndrome will also suffer from anxiety and depression. It might be that these things contribute to the syndrome for some people.
It might also be that they are the result of it. The things that people with Peter Pan syndrome seek to avoid — deep connections with others, happy homes, fulfilling careers — are the things that keep most of us in good mental health.
What can you do about Peter Pan syndrome?
If you think that someone close to you has Peter Pan syndrome, tread carefully. Jumping in and telling them what you’ve learned in this article will probably make them retreat even further away from adulthood — and from you.
Here’s a few tips to keep in mind:
- Calmly explain to them how it’s affecting you and others
- Encourage them to think about how their behavior affects them and the people around them
- Remember that it’s not your responsibility or fault, and you can only help someone who wants to be helped
And as Dr. Priscel recommends, seeking professional help may be the best way to recovery:
“For adults dealing with Peter Pan syndrome, therapy can help uncover the fears that underlie their condition. Working on modifying thoughts, acquiring healthier behaviors, and creating greater awareness of their adult selves will help them to accept growing up and better deal with the situations, responsibilities, and challenges that adulthood brings.”
And if someone you love has Peter Pan syndrome but can’t, or doesn’t want, to change? Be willing to walk away.
Remember that unless they tackle the syndrome, they will struggle to maintain a meaningful connection with you. That’s not your fault and it’s not something you can take responsibility for.
Peter Pan syndrome is a desire to never grow up. But unlike the mischievous little flying boy in JM Barrie’s novel, all of us do grow up, at least physically.
Peter Pan syndrome is complex and usually caused by an unhappy or unfulfilled childhood. But it can be treated. With counseling and commitment, people with Peter Pan syndrome can live happy fulfilled lives.
And even better than treating it, Dr. Priscel advises that:
“Prevention is the best treatment for Peter Pan syndrome. Children should be raised in an environment full of both love and responsibilities. They should have rules, know that there are things that are required of them, and understand that overcoming challenges is a normal part of their growth.”
If not, this child runs the risk of turning into an adult who struggles through life, fails to take responsibility for themselves, and potentially never finds fulfillment and happiness.
Now that you’ve read about Peter Pan syndrome, check out our free masterclass on “embracing your inner beast”. It’s the perfect way to start taking responsibility for your life, and what you learn in the masterclass may help you understand people who have Peter Pan syndrome, and what to do about it.