The boy who never grows up: With the challenges of adulthood, it sounds like a dream, right? For some, it’s an actual way of life.
We all have days when we want to throw our to-do list in the trash. As a collective, we’re overworked, overstimulated, and, at times, “over it,” in general.
But if a laissez-faire lifestyle is interfering with your work, relationships, or other obligations, Peter Pan syndrome — also known as Peter Pan complex — may be involved.
Peter Pan syndrome isn’t a formal diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5).
However, some psychologists do recognize it as a pattern of behaviors that reflects someone is persistently unwilling or unable to accept adulthood responsibilities.
The term was first coined in 1983 by psychologist Dan Kiley in his book, “The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up.”
And who’s Peter Pan?
That would be author J.M. Barrie’s famed protagonist in his 1911 novel “Peter Pan and Wendy,” a tale of an unaging boy who shirks responsibility in favor of adventures with his friends, the aptly named Lost Boys, in a paradise called Neverland.
Signs and symptoms of Peter Pan syndrome may exist on a spectrum, from mild to severe. They also tend to be persistent across situations and over time, instead of sporadic occurrences. Signs and symptoms may significantly interfere with relationships and occupational activities.
These signs may include:
- carefree attitude
- undetermined life and career goals
- low emotional maturity and emotional intelligence
- spontaneous or impulsive behavior
- emotional outbursts
- employment challenges
- difficulty managing finances
- spending time with similar peers
- uncomfortable with commitment
While Peter Pan syndrome isn’t considered a personality disorder, researchers have noted some overlapping traits with narcissistic personality disorder.
Examples of Peter Pan complex
- You rely on your partner to walk the dog, go grocery shopping, and clean all the time.
- You hide bills in a drawer for “later,” even when past due.
- Dishes and laundry pile up until you have no clean items left.
- You enlist family members or friends to make difficult phone calls on your behalf.
- You jump from one short-lived relationship, or job, to the next, and this doesn’t distress you.
- You may often engage in some activities that put you and others in hazardous situations.
- You actively avoid responsibilities.
- You significantly miss your teen and young adulthood years, and constantly try to recreate them.
Experts haven’t settled on why Peter Pan syndrome occurs, but it’s likely a combination of factors. These include:
Other possibilities include:
- permissive parents who had a difficult time setting boundaries or consequences
- overprotective or helicopter parents who took care of all your needs for you
- parents who “rescued” you from responsibilities or mistakes
- parents with abusive behaviors who forced you to grow up too quickly
Avoidant attachment style
This attachment style is characterized by a fear of emotional intimacy.
“When someone sees commitment as boring, losing control, or disempowering, you can see how a Peter Pan mentality can take hold,” says Jacqueline Connors, a psychotherapist in Napa Valley, California.
Peter Pan complex is more common in men, although women can also develop it, Connors explains.
“This is because women tend to have a need to nurture and take care of things for people at an early age,” she says. “However, a woman can have the ‘Cinderella mindset.’ This is an expectation to be rescued and taken care of by a mature adult.”
You fell in love for a reason. In fact, some of these traits may be endearing to you.
“This can actually have some strengths to it,” says Lauren Cook, PsyD, a therapist based in Los Angeles, California. “Chances are, what drew you to someone with Peter Pan syndrome was their lightheartedness, love for life, and sense of adventure.”
Of course, too much of a good thing can sometimes hurt.
“Unfortunately, everyone has a shadow side, and Peter Pan is no exception, as you’ll recall in the story,” she adds.
If you feel unsupported, frustrated, or ready to get serious, here’s how you can manage the situation.
If terms like “man child” are any indication of how society feels about those with Peter Pan syndrome, it isn’t good.
Try not to contribute to the stigma and have compassion for your partner. Right now, they may lack the tools to form healthy interdependence, but change is possible.
Communicate your needs
You can be kind and firm at the same time. Just like Wendy confronts Peter Pan in the story, try not to be afraid to advocate for your own feelings, needs, and desires.
Consider evaluating your to-do list. With love, you can let your partner know you’ll be handing off some tasks, but not all of them.
Try gifting them the opportunity to take care of chores, finances, and other obligations.
If your partner refuses to take action, you may want to reevaluate the relationship.
If you stay, it may be necessary to adjust your expectations. You may have to accept that you can’t change or “fix” them; they must be willing to change on their own.
Take care of you
When your partner’s needs are front and center all the time, it can be draining.
Though “Wendy syndrome” was introduced as a term for women who enable Peter Pan behavior, it applies to any gender.
It can include a partner, friend, or caregiver, says Matt Glowiak, PhD, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Bolingbrook, Illinois.
“Oftentimes, those demonstrating Wendy syndrome are unaware that they are enabling,” he says. “Rather, they believe they are being supportive. In some cases, they even enjoy caring for the other person — believing that it is their responsibility.”
Be mindful, though, says Glowiak: Sometimes the Wendy-and-Peter dynamic can cause two people to become stuck in an unhealthy or codependent dynamic.
The allure of never growing up is understandable. But if you’re ready to explore a different avenue, here’s how to navigate change.
Be honest with yourself
Try taking inventory and consider these questions:
- Why do I feel this way?
- What did I learn in childhood about adulthood?
- Are my actions helping or hurting me in the long term?
- Who is taking the burden of responsibility for me?
- What’s one area I can start “owning” in my life?
Build distress tolerance
You know what they say: We must feel it to heal it.
“Lean into the discomfort of settling in,” Cook says. “It can feel unnerving to sit with our relationships and our feelings, rather than run away from them. Practice leaning into boredom and familiarity. You may see that there is actually comfort that comes with long-term connection.”
It may be challenging to make progress on your own. Consider reaching out to someone for support.
A therapist can help you identify patterns, reframe your situation, and teach you coping skills for life’s ups and downs.
Some people do and some don’t. But, more often than not, some intervention is needed.
“Though we all continue to age with every passing second, it is not time itself that leads toward change,” Glowiak says.
“Rather, awareness of the issue and concerted effort will help someone work through this,” he says.
Adulthood presents many unique challenges. It’s natural to occasionally long for younger years with fewer cares.
But if you actively live to skip responsibility, you may be dealing with what some call Peter Pan syndrome.
Although not a formal mental health diagnosis, this pattern of behaviors is possible in some people.
As psychology professor Jordan Peterson explains in a popular lecture, Peter Pan reminds us of the perils and pitfalls of adulthood.
Peter Pan’s closest example of a grown-up, Captain Hook, is a tyrant desperately trying to fend off an unrelenting crocodile — a metaphor for time, the great equalizer of us all.
While you may not have a ruthless reptile at your doorstep, you likely have bills, appointments, emails, voicemails, children, aging parents, and, now, a pandemic.
Learning to face it all, perhaps with the help of a trusted professional, can allow you to integrate the best parts of youth with the wisdom, and reward, of growing up.
As J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan’s creator, famously penned, “To live will be an awfully big adventure.”