Adulting comes with as much responsibility as it does freedom: You may not love, say, cleaning your bathroom or owning up to your mistakes, but these are very real things all adults have to do, at one point or another. Some of us, however, may refuse to take on these responsibilities, consciously or unconsciously avoiding the realities of growing up—much like the character of Peter Pan in James M. Barrie’s 1911 novel Peter and Wendy and the movies and plays based off of it. Aptly termed Peter Pan syndrome, such a denial of adult obligations doesn’t fly in the real world, where those in relationships with a Peter Pan often have to serve as the Wendy, handling the tasks that the Peter pretends don’t exist.
Coined by psychologist and psychoanalyst Dan Kiley, PhD, in his 1983 book The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up, Peter Pan syndrome is a pop psychology term—not an official diagnosis or mental health condition recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), says psychiatrist Gauri Khurana, MD, MPH, clinical instructor at the department of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine. Though the subheading of the original book on the subject pointed to its particular occurrence in cisgender men, it’s also important to note that anyone can exhibit the behaviors and ideologies associated with Peter Pan syndrome, says clinical psychologist Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD.
And if social media has anything to say about it, plenty of people certainly are. TikTok videos with the hashtag #peterpansyndrome have collectively garnered more than 25 million views in recent months. Whether all this interest in the term points merely to the increased popularity of therapy speak (boundaries, anyone?) or an actual uptick in cases of Peter Pan syndrome, Dr. Romanoff thinks there may indeed be more Peter Pans flying around these days because of the ways in which our challenged economy and the rise of online dating enable this behavior.
“[In today’s environment], it’s harder than ever to cross the threshold into adult life, keeping many developmentally arrested.” —Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, clinical psychologist
On the one hand, “achieving financial security, buying a home, and being able to support a family have all become more challenging,” says Dr. Romanoff. “Together, these things create an environment where it’s harder than ever to cross the threshold into adult life, keeping many developmentally arrested.”
At the same time, “dating apps have made it easier to perpetuate the ‘Peter Pan’ lifestyle,” says Dr. Romanoff. “They supply prolific access to new partners [who can] fulfill superficial relational needs like casual sex.” The fact that these apps typically center physical appearance may also make it easy for some Peter Pans to secure a partner, at least temporarily, without demonstrating much of any willingness to handle the realities of adult life, she adds.
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What are the signs of Peter Pan syndrome?
“Also called adult child syndrome, Peter Pan complex, or failure-to-launch syndrome, Peter Pan syndrome describes people who’ve never grown up and function as though they’re young children,” says Dr. Khurana. “People with Peter Pan syndrome usually cannot support themselves financially, have difficulty maintaining adult relationships, and expect others to take care of them.”
Since Peter Pan syndrome is not a formal diagnosis, there are no official criteria defining the condition. However, according to Dr. Khurana and Dr. Romanoff, some of the most common signs include:
- Difficulty finding direction in life and making decisions on their own
- Trouble maintaining personal and romantic relationships
- Difficulty setting and completing goals, both big and small
- Being unreliable or canceling plans for reasons that may not make sense
- Lacking the ability to function independently
- Having a pattern of job loss
- Lacking accountability and blaming others for personal transgressions
- Gravitating toward people who tend to take care of or “mother” others
- Being financially impulsive
- Lacking the desire for personal growth or to learn how to do new things
If someone typically doesn’t book their own doctor’s appointments or lacks a five-year plan, it doesn’t automatically mean they have Peter Pan syndrome, says Dr. Romanoff. After all, plenty of people struggle with the transition to adulthood, and it’s only natural to feel nostalgia for the simpler times of childhood when the adulting gets tough. But if someone is exhibiting more than two or three of the above signs, and struggling to hold onto adult relationships or jobs, they may very well be dealing with Peter Pan syndrome, says Dr. Romanoff.
What are the causes of Peter Pan Syndrome?
Like many behavioral tendencies, those associated with Peter Pan syndrome typically have their roots in early childhood experiences. “If a child is raised by coddling, helicopter parents, they may become so afraid of failure, they end up not trying at all,” says Dr. Khurana. “As these children grow up, they may be afraid to leave the safety of their parents’ nest and try to make a life for themselves.”
“If a child is raised by coddling, helicopter parents, they may become so afraid of failure, they end up not trying at all.” —Gauri Khurana, MD, MPH, psychiatrist
Children who are over-praised may also develop a Peter Pan complex as adults. “When a child is constantly praised and told they’re the best, they may have an image of themselves as being never wrong,” says Dr. Khurana. “And as adults, this can make it hard for them to see that they need to change aspects of themselves to function better.” Meaning, they can wind up feeling entitled to do whatever they so please, much like someone with narcissistic tendencies—rather than accepting that they need to take on certain adult responsibilities for the sake of themselves and others around them.
Still others develop Peter Pan syndrome as a coping mechanism. “Michael Jackson is an example of a Peter Pan who grew up in an abusive environment, and this is quite common,” says Dr. Khurana. “Someone may act like a child once they’re an adult as a way to reclaim the childhood that they did not get to have.”
How Peter Pan syndrome can hinder romantic relationships
If you or your partner has a Peter Pan complex, it’s nearly impossible for the relationship to grow—unless a lasting behavioral change is made, says individual and couples therapist Irina Firstein, LCSW. “A Peter Pan will not want to commit or take responsibility for things,” she says, which puts the burden on the other partner, the “Wendy,” to handle everything.
“This [Wendy] is someone who goes above and beyond to ensure that they do everything for their partner,” says Dr. Khurana. But eventually, even the most giving Wendy will likely grow resentful of having to handle all the difficult tasks and responsibilities of daily life, says Firstein. After all, a healthy relationship includes the give and take of all people involved.
If you find yourself in the Wendy role, Firstein advises confronting your partner about their behavior and attitude to see if they are open to talking about the issue and have a willingness to change. If they are, they may benefit from the support of a trained mental health professional, says Firstein.
As their partner, you should also take an honest look at your own behavior, says Dr. Khurana, referencing the ways in which Wendy-esque actions can further enable Peter Pan tendencies. “Wendys tend to be self-sacrificing to maintain their role as a savior because they draw their self-esteem from serving others,” says Dr. Khurana. “In order for the relationship to flourish, both Peter and Wendy will need to adjust their behavior.”
If, on the other hand, your Peter Pan is not open to changing their behavior, it may be time to part ways. “It’s important to be honest with yourself and realize that the relationship will not go anywhere [with someone who won’t grow up] and will only lead to frustration,” says Firstein.
What to do if you’re the one who can’t grow up
If you are, in fact, the Peter Pan of your relationship, know that recognizing your behaviors—and the ways in which they aren’t serving you or your partner—is the important first step toward improving the situation.
Once you’ve made a commitment to yourself to change, Firstein recommends finding a mental health professional who can help you understand what may be the root cause of your behavior. “Most of the time, the forces that drive the problem are unconscious, and you may need help to both uncover and understand them,” she says. “Opening up to a therapist and learning to talk about your experience can be very helpful in becoming an adult and maturing.”
In the meantime, it’s also important to communicate your plans to shift your behavior to your significant other. It may be just what they need to hear to stick things out and support the work you’re putting into the relationship—instead of taking a note from Peter’s friend Tinkerbell and going *poof.*
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