Peter Pan Syndrome: When Adults Refuse to Grow Up

A grown man is passed out on the yard next to a kiddie pool.In Peter Pan, the eponymous protagonist occupies a mythical placed called Never-Never Land, where children never grow up. While people with Peter Pan syndrome can and do become adults, they are stubbornly resistant to taking on the responsibilities of adulthood and adopting social norms associated with growing older.

Peter Pan syndrome, which is sometimes called failure to launch, is not a clinical diagnosis. Indeed, it may apply to a wide range of people and symptoms, from the 40-year-old woman who chooses not to work and instead lives with her mother, to the 30-year-old man who keeps having children for whom he provides little support.

Therapy can help people who feel uncomfortable growing up understand the root of their difficulties. With patience and hard work, they can transition toward happy adulthood and establish lasting relationships.

What is Peter Pan Syndrome?

Psychologist Dan Kiley coined the term Peter Pan syndrome in his 1983 book, Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up. Kiley worked with troubled teenage boys. He found that many grew into adult men who struggled to accept adult responsibilities.

Some characteristics of Peter Pan syndrome might include:

  • Chronic unemployment or underemployment. An otherwise capable person may refuse to look for jobs. They may be constantly kicked out of jobs due to absenteeism or misbehavior.
  • Not doing one’s fair share at home. A person might get married and have children, but spend most of their days playing video games while their partner works, cleans, and tends to the children.
  • Relying on someone else to take care of financial responsibilities. A person with Peter Pan syndrome might rely on others to take care of money issues (without contributing something of value in return such as childcare).
  • Failure to launch. A person may remain at home with their parents in spite of opportunities to earn money, get a job, or move out.

Kiley claimed the refusal to grow up is a primarily male affliction. He also believed women who “mother” their male partners—a complex he dubbed the Wendy dilemma—may enable these men to continue avoiding adult responsibilities. While both men and women can refuse to grow up, most literature on Peter Pan syndrome continues to focus on men.

What Causes Peter Pan Syndrome?

Peter Pan syndrome is not a clinically recognized diagnosis, and it is a newly identified syndrome. For these reasons, little research has explored the phenomenon. Some factors that may play a role in Peter Pan syndrome include:

  • Gender roles: Women are often socialized to take on household responsibilities, do emotional labor, and care for children. This may make it easier for their male partners to abandon these duties and avoid adulthood.
  • Anxiety: Adulthood can be challenging. It’s common to feel anxious about one’s ability to get a job, earn a living, or achieve other measures of success. When a viable path to escape these responsibilities is available—such as a responsible spouse or a parent who will tend to daily chores—some people may refuse to grow up.
  • Loneliness: Psychologist Humbelina Robles Ortega suggests people with Peter Pan syndrome may fear loneliness. Thus, they continuously seek out people to care for them—usually romantic partners.
  • Fear of commitment: People with Peter Pan syndrome often have a pattern of unstable relationships. They may form relationships with progressively younger partners, who they assume will have less plans for the future and require less investment.
  • Helicopter Parenting: Ortega says overprotective parents can make their children excessively dependent. These children may fail to develop basic skills necessary for adulthood, which causes them to develop Peter Pan syndrome.
  • Mental health diagnoses: Some research suggests men with Peter Pan syndrome may have personality disorders. For example, a 1982 study argued Peter Pan syndrome is often part of a complex family system in which the male partner has a narcissistic personality and the female partner is depressed.

Having “childish” interests—such as dolls or comic books—does not cause Peter Pan syndrome. Instead, this syndrome is about a refusal to take on responsibility and form reciprocal relationships.

What Maturity Means in a Cultural Context

The meaning of adulthood and maturity varies significantly across cultures. In some cultures, people live with their families for a lifetime and show their adulthood by marrying or having children.  In others, the hallmark of adulthood is the ability to live independently and away from one’s parents. Yet other cultures would consider living separately from one’s parents a sign of abandoning one’s duties to their family. In other words, the hallmark of this syndrome is not necessarily any single symptom, but instead a failure to adopt common norms of adulthood.

Some young people who appear to have Peter Pan syndrome may simply be taking longer to grow up due to forces outside their control.That said, the inability to leave home or find a spouse is not always proof that someone has Peter Pan syndrome. A person with a serious mobility impairment may need help from a caregiver to tend to daily tasks. The same level of help for someone who is not disabled would be inappropriate.

Complex sociological and economic factors can also delay when an individual reaches certain milestones. A 2013 people found young Americans are becoming financially independent at later ages than previous generations did. This is due in part to a shifting job market, increasing costs of education, rising rent prices, and many other factors. Financial dependency can in turn affect other milestones such as finding a spouse.

Some young people who appear to have Peter Pan syndrome may simply be taking longer to grow up due to forces outside their control. Financial status alone does not determine one’s maturity. Rather, adulthood is shown through a person’s willingness to work toward milestones and take responsibility for their actions.

Therapy for Peter Pan Syndrome

In many cases, an individual’s failure to grow up harms the people around them. The individual’s partner may feel overwhelmed and exhausted by taking on all household responsibilities. The person’s parents may take money from their retirement savings to continue providing material support.

Individuals with Peter Pan syndrome may not see their symptoms as problematic. Many only seek help when they lose a source of support or when their symptoms endanger their relationship. Loved ones struggling with someone else’s Peter Pan syndrome should know that drawing clear boundaries may encourage their loved one to seek help.

Family therapy or couples counseling can help an entire family understand their current dynamic. In therapy, they can address their own contributions and work toward healthier, more balanced relationships.

In individual counseling, a therapist can help a person understand their reluctance to grow up, tackle underlying factors such as trauma, and make a plan for transitioning to adulthood. Getting a job, forming a relationship, and becoming independent can feel like monumental tasks. The right therapist can break these tasks down into manageable steps, helping a person steadily improve their life.

References:

  1. Arnett, J. J., & Galambos, N. L. (2003). Culture and conceptions of adulthood. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 100, 91-98. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1dd8/8dfff10bb9d61fdfa5aef2997a6c7fabbbe8.pdf
  2. Carnevale, A. P., Hanson, A. R., & Gulish, A. (2013). Failure to launch: Structural shift and the new lost generation. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED558185
  3. Overprotecting parents can lead children to develop ‘Peter Pan Syndrome’. (2007, May 03). ScienceDaily. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070501112023.htm
  4. Quadrio, C. (1982). The Peter Pan and Wendy syndrome: A marital dynamic. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 16(2), 23-28. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3109/00048678209161187?journalCode=ianp20
  5. Thomas, R. M., Jr. (1996, February 27). Dan Kiley, 54, dies; wrote ‘Peter Pan syndrome’. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1996/02/27/us/dan-kiley-54-dies-wrote-peter-pan-syndrome.html

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  • 17 comments
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  • Gerald G.

    February 19th, 2019 at 6:31 AM

    Hi,
    Mothers create Peter Pan Syndrome in their sons, because they want them to stay with them and never branch out into the world and God forbid, marry!
    On the other hand, most serial killers have dominant and cruel mothers and weak fathers!
    High dominance in women is not conducive to a loving home life!
    Study the work of Erin Pizzy and see the violence in women.

  • Felicity

    December 1st, 2019 at 8:49 AM

    Or how about kids who lost there mothers at a young age. And seak out mother figures in a relationship. Because there dad never let them grieve.

  • Katy

    April 22nd, 2020 at 1:26 PM

    This article is out of touch with reality, many people living at home would love to be anywhere else but there isn’t many jobs that provide a living wage, so when the choice is between working full time while living in poverty and staying at home and trying to figure it out many people will choose the latter. I’m also assuming that the writer is making the association of a desire to not live in poverty with not wanting to be an ‘adult’ as a way to try and shame more people into the underpaid workforce.

  • Nisa

    October 13th, 2020 at 9:31 PM

    This is so true, what Katy said. How can you be an adult on pocket money. There are also less jobs and it is going to get worse with automation. Why no one or governments are addressing this is beyond me!

  • CR

    November 2nd, 2020 at 10:59 AM

    I agree with 90% of the article (but I’m old!!) I was speaking with a mother yesterday. Her 36yo son has 4 degrees that his parents have financed. He just backed out of another college application to work toward yet another degree because he was put on the ‘Alternate’ list instead of being accepted immediately. He can’t or won’t hold a job utilizing any of his degrees. Is living at home and not paying anything toward expenses.
    Predictably, his father is angry and wants to throw him out. His mother ‘loves’ having him living there. His older two sisters are married and getting on with their lives.
    I advised her that she is doing him no favor. She needs to quit enabling him. He needs to IMMEDIATELY start contributing to his share of the household expenses. And a date needs to be set (I said a year, but that’s up to them) that states an unequivocal time for him to work toward become self-supporting.
    If not now. If not with 4 degrees. If not with any of the jobs he has held in any of his degrees. When??

  • Marnie

    March 9th, 2021 at 1:32 PM

    An acquaintance of mine is the perfect female Peter Pan syndrome study. She is an expert blame shifter, let her ex-husband do most of the work and never really did much in return for him, preferred to play with makeup and clothes than be a decent human (like, bows and flowers in her hair like she is 4-years-old), and now that she is a single mom, she works part-time and happily collects child support as she dates the next sucker with hopes of getting into his deep pockets.

  • Hoopy

    July 1st, 2021 at 4:25 AM

    The syndrome exists… I am living proof. At 60 I had a sudden realization that I had wasted my entire life with trivial things, and that I would never reach any of my lofty goals. I have never grown up, and have destroyed a house by not properly taken care of it. My last seven years of life have been a life of living hell with depression and severe regret. My parents and my spouse were enablers. Even now I can’t get myself to accept the responsibility for my life, and depend heavily on my wife for financial support and making decisions. Even 4 years of therapy with a psychiatrist have only kept me from killing myself, but not helped me grow up. At 67, I don’t have any hope of getting better.

  • Cynthia

    July 24th, 2021 at 1:36 PM

    Failure to launch 40 year old son.

  • Ed

    November 8th, 2021 at 4:51 AM

    The most prevalent and insidious contributor to “Peter Pan Syndrome”, aka Narcissism, is child abuse and neglect. It happens to both boys and girls leaving them lonely and afraid during times of stress for their entire lives.

  • Sukolukhulu

    November 18th, 2021 at 9:41 AM

    peter pan syndrome is at times caused by parents being overprotective and restraining children from doing certain essential activities and responsibilities. the most affected being those born in very rich or very poor families, the other lot being those born alone or born under special circumstance.

  • Lisabela Marschild

    November 20th, 2021 at 4:11 AM

    I challenge the idea that anyone must ‘grow up’.
    There are different cultures and ways of living. The contemporary culture is discovering many young people who choose not to leave the parental home and live elsewhere, or marry. The idea of marriage is old fashioned anyway and historically has been a trap for women. Monogamy is a flawed idea too. Many college grads are staying with parents and some decide to build extensions to that home to house a larger family. There is nothing wrong with polygamous or polyandrous relationships and they would likely provide a larger extended group of family and friends to provide Love, affection and care to any child in the group. Larger families with lots of siblings and cousins can provide all that a child needs to avoid becoming Peter Pan. But even if they do the matter is about responsibility not fulfilling some idea of an ‘adult’ role. The fact that so many young children become carers for disabled parents removes any idea that only ‘adults’ can be responsible people and in an extended group such a child can gain satisfaction in their caring role and also have plenty of help and support. This is the true way of human society. The nuclear family was a concept dreamt up by Kodak in the 1950s. It fits with modern capitalism since when you have that close knit group of soblings and cousins aunts and uncles, such an extended group of family and friends, you can find the help and support for children and elderly and disabled people in the group and therefore you don’t need to pay huge amounts of money for childcare, elderly care, disability care etc. and the Massively rich owners of those care companies become annoyed as their profits go down.
    Also therapy/therapists/psychologists/psychiatrists/ are not needed so much if at all. As long as the group has a good open relationship of Love and Kindness.

  • Steel

    November 25th, 2021 at 9:49 PM

    I wonder if there is any connection to emotional incest / parentiffication / enmeshment isses with Peter Pan syndrome? If someone is forced to become an adult in their childhood, then is it the case that not only have they not been equipped to go through the steps of early adulthood, but they are likely to emotionally stuck at a younger age, with trauma issues to resolve? Depending on when they realize the predicament they are in, and get effective therapy / resolution could they end up being significantly behind the norm in terms of standard adult development?

    Touching on a couple of the comments above, should we as a society accept that it is increasingly difficult to find economic conditions that allow a traditionally standard path of development and our expectations need to be more flexible?

  • Daorong

    December 25th, 2021 at 4:46 AM

    Try and research how does that made the provision for the underpaid workforce started.Perharps they might have started with underpayment before growing to the stage of becoming employers.Spear me,i dont agree Katy at-all.

  • Mary

    January 19th, 2022 at 7:58 PM

    I had a boyfriend who was a classic example of Peter Pan Syndrome. He was 35 years old and still living with his mother, refused to get a job, and never helped with the housecleaning or yardwork or grocery shopping. He was totally dependent. He had the emotional maturity of a ten year old. He never looked for a job. Yet he was under the delusion that he was intelligent and talented. The problem is that these people always sucker others into enabling them and that’s what allows them to live their responsibility-free lifestyle. The excuse that jobs don’t pay enough is nonsense because these deadbeats never contribute to the household anyway. They just use any excuse to stay unemployed so others have to support them.

  • Robert

    March 8th, 2022 at 3:32 PM

    All the above is basically wrong refusing o grow is up is actually refusing to become a slave to society and be brained washed by the group mind that is basically all that it is when a person is forced to grow up they will always psychologically damaged to one degree or another.

  • Scott

    April 18th, 2022 at 3:37 PM

    My ex refused to grow up, my son struggles with it. My 2 cents is they see adulthood as punishment, unhappiness, miserable people sitting in cubicles to pay bills instead of being a fun child and riding rollercoasters and fun stuff.
    I wish there was an answer to at least getting them into the “working world of being independent’. At times it seems its a retardation issue and just unable mentally to do it. They might even admit to their inability to join the adult world but have many other strong skill sets that unfortunately do not come with adequate financial employment. It can be like asking most people why they arent a Paul McCartney or why arent you a Bill Gates? Its a form of inability, retardation, normalcy?

  • Temple Forsythe

    June 19th, 2022 at 2:54 AM

    My ex ( who yes I enable) did not work the entire two years that we have been on and off. I dovorced him because he wouldn’t get a job or sleep with me. Sometimes when we fight or even over little things he will just start almost screaming “I am not a child. I am not your child.” its really quite freaky. He has been homeless the two times that I have ade him leave (by eviction notices) he stayed in his car and with friends and heped a little with a weekly and yes his mother has sent him some major amounts of money that he continued to buy music stuff iwth while I worked 60 hours a week. I used to feel that he just didn’t love me but I am really thinking that it is a mental illness. He still dresses like he is 14 too and spends most of his time playing guitar and hanging out at his friends. But when someone chooses to be homeless over getting a job I think that it becomes a mental illness over just being selfish and lazy and yes he is definitely narassistic too. I think its an illness.

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