Peter Pan Syndrome

Written by Bonnie Gifford
Bonnie Gifford
Counselling Directory Content Team

Named after the boy who never grew up, Peter Pan Syndrome is a metaphor to describe the increasing number of people who feel unable to or do not want to grow up.

We’ve all heard the tale of Peter Pan, the original boy who refused to grow up. But have you heard of Peter Pan Syndrome? First coined in Dr. Dan Kiley’s 1983 book, Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up, Dr. Kiley focused specifically on the behaviour of men who tried to cling to the more carefree days of their childhoods, in an attempt to avoid the emotional and financial challenges that come with adulthood.

In this short video, counsellor and psychologist, Philip Karahassan (MSc, MBACP, MBPsS) explains more about Peter Pan Syndrome and the causes behind the behaviour.

What is Peter Pan Syndrome?

Affecting people of any gender and culture, Peter Pan Syndrome is not currently a recognised mental health condition or psychological disorder. Originally outlined in Dr. Kiley’s book, further studies have revealed that overprotective parenting may lead to children developing Peter Pan Syndrome. 

As Professor Humbelinda Robles Ortega from the Department of Personality, Evaluation and Psychological Treatment of the University of Granada warns, people experiencing Peter Pan Syndrome “Become anxious when they are evaluated by their work colleagues or superiors, given they are completely intolerant towards any criticism. They can have serious adaptation problems at work or in personal relationships.” 

While not a recognised condition, many experts believe the behaviour patterns that are typically exhibited by those with Peter Pan Syndrome can have a significant impact on their relationships and overall quality of life. But what signs should you be looking out for in a partner, friend, or even yourself?

Do I have Peter Pan Syndrome? Recognising the signs and symptoms 

We all have days where we find ‘adulting’ to be a struggle. Yet for some, this feeling is more of a way of life. While Peter Pan Syndrome can affect anyone, it is most likely to appear more often among men. Affecting family and romantic relationships, working relationships, and attitudes towards life, there are common characteristics and warning signs you can look out for.

Signs of Peter Pan Syndrome in relationships

These can include, but are not limited to:

  • Inability to take on responsibilities and commitments, or keep promises.
  • Fear of loneliness (which may lead them to surround themselves with others who can meet their needs).
  • Constantly changing partners (often looking for younger ones) to avoid a higher level of commitment or responsibility.
  • Difficulty adapting within personal relationships, reluctance or refusal to define relationships.  
  • Trouble completing or fully neglecting general ‘life admin’ such as avoiding laundry or other basic household tasks.
  • Unwilling to plan activities or make big decisions, or showing a preference to ‘live in the moment’ over-committing to long-term plans.
  • Avoiding productively acknowledging or addressing relationship issues.

Signs of Peter Pan Syndrome at work

These can include, but are not limited to:

  • Difficulty adapting at work.
  • Skipping work, constantly late, or showing little effort. This may often lead to patterns in job loss, poor performance reviews, or difficulty finding and/or maintaining employment.
  • Frequently leaving roles due to feelings of boredom, stress, or difficulty.
  • Lack of interest in promotion opportunities or a preference for part-time, low-commitment work.
  • Frequently moving between fields without developing skills in any specific areas.
  • Setting unrealistic goals (such as going from couch to professional athlete).
  • Focusing on their dreams without exerting effort into how they can be achieved. 

Other behavioural signs of Peter Pan Syndrome 

These can include, but are not limited to:

  • Excessive interest in how they look, their personal well-being, or their lack of self-confidence.
  • Consistently spending money in unwise ways, or difficulty keeping track of their personal finances.
  • Seeming helpless or like they may be unable to make it in the world without help.
  • General unreliability or patterns of ‘flaking out’. This could include reacting to stressful situations with emotional outbursts.
  • Lack of personal accountability (such as blaming others for things going wrong or making excuses).
  • Little or no interest in personal growth or development.
  • Fear of negative feedback or evaluation.
  • Expecting others will take care of them or do things for them.
  • Patterns of substance use or abuse to escape from responsibilities or difficult feelings.
  • Avoiding making or confirming solid plans in order to keep their options open. 

It is important to note that often, those with Peter Pan Syndrome do not feel like their behaviour is a problem. They may be unaware of their behaviours, or may just see them as ‘normal’ rather than problematic. 

What causes Peter Pan Syndrome?

One 2007 study by the University of Granada revealed increasing numbers of adults presenting with ‘emotionally immature behaviours in Western society.

Professor Ortega explains, “It [Peter Pan Syndrome] usually affects dependent people who have been overprotected by their families and haven’t developed the necessary skills to confront life. [They] see the adult world as very problematic and glorify adolescence, which is why they want to stay in that state of privilege.” 

Psychologist Patrick Cheatham also believes that childhood could play a significant role in developing Peter Pan Syndrome. “Certain parenting styles can result in people who didn’t learn adult-level life skills, are canny at avoiding responsibilities and commitments, overly focus on sensation-seeking and hedonism, and romanticise freedom and escapism.” 

So those who may have had parents who were overly protective or overly laid-back may be more likely to experience Peter Pan Syndrome. Too many boundaries or a complete lack of boundaries can lead to children rebelling or believing it’s ok to do whatever they want. A lack of consequences can lead to individuals failing to learn to deal with the consequences of their actions, while too much of a focus on allowing you to ‘just be a kid’ and enjoy your childhood without a balance of learning responsibilities in the form of household chores, learning to save with pocket money, or committing to attending regularly after joining an after school club can all lead to later trouble learning basic household skills, managing money, or following through with commitments. 

For teens and young adults, economic changes, overall lower wages and fewer promotional opportunities can have a significant impact, further decreasing motivation and making people less likely to pursue a career with enthusiasm and dedication. Higher costs for further education matched with ever-rising costs of living, a generation faced with the possibility of never being able to afford to own their own home, and a growing pressure from social media to show only the positive side of life, and it’s no wonder many are struggling to make the leap from the relative safety of adolescence into adulthood. 

Is Peter Pan Syndrome 'bad'?

Peter Pan Syndrome can have both drawbacks and positive effects. For the individual, having a more playful outlook on life can help improve long-term mental health and reduce or maintain low levels of stress. Their partner, friends or family may find that they are encouraged or inspired to live more spontaneously, enjoy the little things in life, and even be reminded how to put stress and worries to one side to focus on the more fun side of things. 

On the other hand, having a partner or family member who constantly avoids responsibilities or refuses to make definitive plans can be frustrating. For those who feel like they have to pick up the slack, this can cause additional stress and worry, and can even lead to resentment and the development of further problems. Particularly amongst those with a partner who has Peter Pan Syndrome, they may exhibit symptoms of Wendy Syndrome (a related term) themselves.

What is Wendy Syndrome?

Another term used by Psychologist Dr. Kiley in his 1982 book, the term ‘Wendy Syndrome’ refers most commonly to women (though as with Peter Pan Syndrome, it can be someone of any gender) who act like mothers to their partners or those close to them. Describing the person who deals with everything that the person with Peter Pan Syndrome refuses to do, without Wendy making the decisions and taking the responsibilities, Peter wouldn’t be able to exist. 

Is Peter Pan Syndrome linked with narcissism?

While conversations about the two are often linked, narcissism is a distinctly different thing. As one therapist explains, “Narcissism is a personality type characterised by a distinct lack of empathy, selfishness, and self-seeking intentions and behaviours”. While many of the characteristics are often shared between Peter Pan Syndrome and narcissism, many people can show these traits without meeting the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder.

Not everyone who has Peter Pan Syndrome shares the same traits as narcissism. Someone who has narcissistic personality disorder has a distorted self-image, often leading them to believe they are superior to others. It can lead them to feel like their opinions, feelings, and interests are more important than others, which can mean they find it difficult to empathise with others.

Can you overcome Peter Pan Syndrome?

Encouraging your partner and offering to support and help them make positive changes is possible. However, as with many forms of self-help, self-improvement, and professionally guided therapy, the individual needs to be both ready to recognise that they have a problem, and willing to put in the work to make positive changes. Pushing before they are ready can cause you both to feel frustrated and unheard.

Communication is key. As explained by one Counselling Directory therapist, “Researchers have consistently identified communication as an integral part of maintaining a healthy relationship. Maintaining healthy communication is important not only for the relationship itself, but for the individual health of the people involved.”

As explained by another Counselling Directory counsellor, that doesn’t just mean working on talking things through. “Whilst it is vital for couples to address communication issues and to learn how to listen to each other, this alone does not make for a successful relationship. But how is communication different from talking?

“Talking does not necessarily build understanding and connection. Communication is the process of building understanding and connection, of building intimacy and attachment within relationships. We communicate non-verbally through the things we don’t say, the tone of our voice, the pitch, our body language, facial expressions, choices, level of attention and focus we are giving the conversation, whether we are making eye contact and haptics. We need to pay attention to all of these.”

As counsellor and author Graeme Orr explains, “Good communication in a relationship is in part skill, part practice and part willingness to be vulnerable with your partner. It can be helpful to have relationship counselling to help with any part of these, especially if you are finding it difficult.” 

How to find help with Peter Pan Syndrome

If you’re worried that you may be struggling to take responsibility in your life, are avoiding commitment, or are struggling with the idea of growing up, working with an experienced, qualified therapist may help. A counsellor may be able to help you to identify underlying causes or issues that you are struggling with, guiding you towards the next steps to help you move forward. 

If you are worried that Peter Pan Syndrome or Wendy Syndrome may be negatively impacting your relationships, working with a relationship counsellor may help you both to talk openly together in a neutral setting. Offering an impartial, outside perspective, a therapist can help facilitate conversation between you, and help guide you both towards developing healthy ways of communicating together and coping with different stressors or issues that may be impacting you both. 

To find a relationship counsellor online or near you, use our advanced search. Or find out more about how a counsellor can help with relationship problems.

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