Peter Pan Syndrome: What Is It?
What is Peter Pan Syndrome and what are the signs that your partner may be struggling with it? Here’s how to recognize it and how to deal with it.
Maintaining a childlike curiosity for life can help you feel younger, and studies have shown that those that feel younger tend to live longer. However, if you’re in a slightly different position, and struggling to meet the demands of adulthood, you could be experiencing something known as Peter Pan syndrome.
You won’t find “Peter Pan Syndrome” in the textbook of a qualified mental health professional, it isn’t exactly a real, medical diagnosis. It’s more like a personality trait, or an identifiable pattern of thoughts and behaviors. Someone with Peter Pan Syndrome may feel like they suck at “adulting,” or don’t have the skills necessary to be a productive and functional member of society.
It’s important to note that Peter Pan syndrome shouldn’t be used to deny mental illnesses that may have some overlapping symptoms. Peter Pan syndrome is also not the same as a person having stuffed animals on their bed or comic books on their shelf. Those things are harmless issues of taste, whereas Peter Pan syndrome can actually represent a psychological barrier to taking on adult responsibilities.
Let’s take a look at what this syndrome is, and how you may be able to recognize some of these traits or behaviours in your own life, or one of your friends.
Who is Peter Pan?
Peter Pan is the iconic, fictional character from J. M. Barrie’s 1911 novel “Peter and Wendy.” He is the original boy who wouldn’t grow up in Never-Never Land, the place where children never-never have to grow up. Peter Pan’s popularity as a cultural figure grew even more after the release of the eponymously titled Disney movie in 1953.
Signs of Peter Pan Syndrome
Since Peter Pan syndrome isn’t a clinical disorder recognized by the World Health Organization, there is no set criteria for how, exactly, Peter Pans may behave.
This can be frustrating, especially if you’re searching for clues about your current partner, and want some straight answers before making some type of commitment to each other. Nevertheless, there are certain signs these types tend to give off that can help you decide if you’re dealing with a Peter Pan or just a well-adjusted adult who has held on to childlike wonderment.
The signs you should watch out for will change depending on the setting. For example, someone looking for signs of Peter Pans in potential romantic partners will be looking for slightly different signals than someone interviewing Peter Pans for potential career opportunities.
All signs stem from a lack of emotional maturity or stunted development, the causes of which you’ll see shortly.
In a relationship, you might find someone presenting emotionally immature behaviors such as:
- Avoiding decision-making (ie. putting someone else “in charge”)
- Postponing chores and tasks (ie. doing the dishes until they pile up, not going to the dentist until it’s an emergency)
- Failing to progress to next relationship stages
- Not taking responsibility for their actions or lack of life skills
- Not following-through with promises
- Inability to identify and express emotions
- Committing little to nothing to the future
- Spending household money unwisely or not following budget
- Yelling and shutting down when confronted
Here are some signs to watch out for in the workplace:
- Getting by on other people’s ideas
- Chatting more than working
- Not showing up because they don’t feel like it
- Quitting without another plan in place or job-hopping
- Not respecting office hierarchy
- Spreading negative energy and not being a team player
- Keeping positions of status to feed their ego
- Aversion to networking (would rather do ‘fun’ activities)
Is Narcissism a Sign of Peter Pan Syndrome?
Those with narcissistic personality disorder and Peter Pans have some characteristics in common (i.e. emotionally immature), but they are not the same thing.
Narcissism is when someone obsessively loves themself to an unhealthy degree. It generally pops up in the teenage years but isn’t considered a problem until it begins interfering with relationships. Narcissists portray impenetrable confidence and are skilled manipulators of other people.
Peter Pans can be narcissistic but this isn’t always the case. True narcissists lack empathy and see themselves above others. Moreover, narcissism exists on a spectrum, more about which you can read here in our blog on narcissistic relationships.
Are you dating a Peter Pan? More signs to watch out for
If this is starting to sound like your partner, dig a little deeper to see how closely their actual behaviors match those of the typical Peter Pan.
- Does your partner abuse drugs or alcohol?
- Are they highly unreliable?
- Do you feel you’re teaching them about the basics life all the time (ie. grocery shopping, laundry, self-care, etc.)?
- Do they point fingers and blame others?
- Are they unwilling to change or have little interest in self-improvement?
The last item is a big one. If your partner has little interest in listening to your concerns or working to mature their behavior, that’s a telltale sign they’re stuck in a place of childhood.
Pay attention to the differences between empty promises to change that may sound great and actual actions that contribute to lasting changes.
Every Peter needs a Wendy: The Wendy Syndrome
Dan Kiley, the psychologist who defined Peter Pan Syndrome in 1983, also defined the term ‘Wendy Syndrome’ to describe women who act like mothers to their partners and others around them.
Wendys are the supporting actors whose roles revolve around Peter Pans. Without the Wendys of the world, Peter Pans in adult life would fall apart.
In daily life, Wendys can be found doing the following:
- Cleaning-up after Peter Pans
- Offering endless, often one-sided emotional support
- Reminding or nagging Peter Pan about small items like booking dentist appointments, wishing their mother a happy birthday, picking up the children from baseball, etc.
- Enabling or making excuses for others
- Self-sacrificing or playing the martyr
Wendy Syndrome is also more of a behavioral pattern than a real mental health condition or mental disorder. It is not recognized by the World Health Organization. And of course, not everyone becomes a Wendy for the same reason. However when people play the role of Wendy, there is usually a reason why.
What causes people to develop Peter Pan Syndrome?
Peter Pan Syndrome is commonly associated with boys and men, but it can happen to other sexes and gender identities. People can develop into Peter Pans for a variety of reasons relating to home environment in early adulthood, mental health reasons, due to economic factors.
Growing up with overprotective parents or ‘helicopter parents,’ which are the kind that hover above you and never let you make your own mistakes or learn your own lessons. This parenting style suggests to the child over and over again that they are incapable of taking on greater challenges in the adult world.
It’s not good if the parenting style is too permissive, though.
Boundaries, rules, and expectations are still necessary. Parenting adults who are too laissez-faire or overly nonchalant can raise humans to think the world revolves around them, they can get away with anything, and that there are few real consequences.
After all, these Peter Pans already know one or both of their parenting adults will be there to clean up their messes. These Peter Pans are on the lookout for Wendys (the mother-figure) to ease their transition from living with their mother figures to being in an adult relationship with responsibilities and two-way expectations.
Traumatic experiences or mental health diagnoses
There is a lack of evidence to show that traumatic experiences and mental health diagnoses are a ‘cause’ of Peter Pan syndrome. However, both of these psychological phenomena are associated with the syndrome.
For example, some research suggests men with Peter Pan syndrome may have personality disorders and Wendys may be depressed. Anxiety can also be a contributing factor (ie. the fear of growing up prevents you from doing so).
People who experience childhood traumas may feel the need to relive what they feel they missed or play “catch up” with others.
A fear of loneliness can actually cause some people to attach to others (romantically or otherwise) who may care for them. This doesn’t always mean they choose Wendys, but they do choose people with the intention of them doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to ‘adulting’ and accomplishing life goals.
No one is saying being an adult is easy. Even those who have been raised in healthy, well-balanced households face societal pressures, economic uncertainties, and external factors. It can leave some feeling like if they can’t truly progress to what’s expected, so why bother at all? With the cost of post-secondary education further increasing and the housing market exploding, it can feel like too much to work toward.
When people cannot progress, they may instead stay stuck in one life stage, never to progress, or they may instead begin regressing. When people regress, they may adopt old behaviors they had during their youth including escapist strategies like ditching responsibilities and getting intoxicated or going on shopping sprees.
Are all Peter Pans childlike forever?
Everyone is capable of change. So if you know a Peter Pan or think you may be one, have some faith that true transformational change does happen because people do it everyday. You don’t have to stay stuck in Never-Never Land forever.
If you’re dating a Peter Pan, your partner is capable of change. That being said, you cannot do the work for them or force them to mature. The motivation and effort must come from them.
If you’re the one suffering from Peter Pan Syndrome, then it’s time to do some self-reflection on what’s holding you back from moving to the next stage of your life. Maybe you should talk to a trained professional who can help you develop the skills necessary to recover from this childlike status quo.
A mental health worker or doctor can provide the kind of informed, professional advice you need to help you achieve small, attainable goals that can guide your emotional growth. If you have an underlying mental illness, make sure to follow through on treatment plans to make transitioning into real adulthood a little less challenging.
If you’re a Wendy
If you think you may be a Wendy-type person stuck in an uneven and emotionally immature relationship, you have some options. You can talk to your partner about your concerns and ask them if they’re open to self-improvement, a relationship counselor, and making real changes. Depending on the reaction, you’ll know whether the relationship has hopes of evolving.
For the relationship to work, you will both need to change deep-rooted behaviors. This means you will need to resist the urge to mother your partner. This is challenging, but with effort and patience, it’s possible.
How to actually overcome Peter Pan Syndrome
To overcome Peter Pan syndrome, it takes work—and a Peter Pan type often hates adult concepts like working, because working is for boring old adults. You can start to see how evolving with a Peter Pan can be a frustrating and even painstaking process.
The Peter Pan archetype tends to take some steps forward, only to get scared of coming too close to crossing over fully into adulthood. When they get scared, Peter Pans typically don’t have the age-appropriate coping skills or ways of communicating what’s really happening. As such, they may self-destruct by ruining the relationship that is asking more from them.
Ideally, people would get help for Peter Pan syndrome before it becomes a problem, but this is an unlikely scenario. People with this syndrome often lack the self-awareness to properly reflect on how their thought processes are influencing their current situation. This can lead to a lack of financial responsibility, and various other negatives. Peter Pans may also feel offended if someone suggests they need to ‘grow up’ or start acting their age if they see nothing wrong with their behavior or feel their circumstances are always the fault of others.
Professional psychotherapy like cognitive behavioral therapy can help Peter Pan types that are willing to address their behavior and who want to change. Therapy can teach them to recognize childlike thoughts and challenge them with more reasonable and productive alternatives. It can also help them with realistic goal-setting and empower them to believe in their developing adulting skills, as opposed to becoming a part of a new lost generation.
Couples struggling with Peter Pan syndrome can talk to relationship counsellors to establish healthy boundaries between partners and to work through any other issues that may have come as a result of the Peter Pan behavior (ie. Peter Pan makes jokes during serious conversations so their partner has responded by closing themselves off). You can work with a trained professional to strengthen your relationship and work out communication issues.
Don’t lose that free spirit
Being an adult isn’t about following some pre-written script; unlike in childhood, you actually get to choose what happens next.
This is the goal: To grow into a functional and productive member of society who can still access their inner child and nurture its needs without compromising adult needs and responsibilities. Don’t worry, it is not as daunting as it sounds because as an adult, you get to define what functional and productive look like.
However, when we work on self-improvement, it can sometimes backfire into an overcorrection. This is what we call going from one extreme to the next. For Peter Pans, please don’t think society is trying to crush your inner child. This could be contributing to your fear of entering adulthood. You need to know there is so much space in adulthood for childlike curiosity, exploration, and play. The difference is that adults can remain feeling young at heart without jeopardizing their relationships or opportunities.
Go forward knowing that whether you’re a Peter Pan, a Wendy, or someone who loves one, change is always possible—if you want it.