“All children, except one, grow up,” J. M. Barrie wrote in his 1911 novel “Peter and Wendy.” He was speaking of Peter Pan, the original boy who wouldn’t grow up.
While there’s no actual magic preventing children from physically growing up, some adults continue to cling to the carefree days of youth and find emotional and financial responsibilities challenging well into adulthood.
“Peter Pan syndrome,” the current name for this pattern of behavior, first appears in Dr. Dan Kiley’s 1983 book, “Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up.”
While Kiley focused on this behavior in men, Peter Pan syndrome can affect people of any gender or culture.
Keep in mind this isn’t a recognized mental health condition. Still, many experts agree this pattern of behavior can have an impact on someone’s relationships and quality of life.
Ever said, “I can’t adult today”? People with Peter Pan syndrome tend to live by this philosophy every day.
Since Peter Pan syndrome isn’t a clinical diagnosis, experts haven’t determined any official symptoms. Here’s some consensus on how it often plays out in relationships, at work, and in personal attitudes toward responsibility and accountability.
“In relationships, I think this shows up most clearly in divergent levels of ambition, expectations, life goals, and ability to make commitments,” explains Patrick Cheatham, a psychologist in Portland, Oregon.
If your partner has Peter Pan syndrome, you might get the impression they’d have a hard time making it in the world alone.
Their dishes might pile up in the sink. They might avoid doing laundry until they have nothing clean to wear. You might find yourself regularly helping out with chores just to get their home a little more habitable.
- let you plan activities and make big decisions
- neglect household chores and child care responsibilities
- prefer to “live for today” and show little interest in making long-term plans
- show signs of emotional unavailability, such as not wanting to label or define relationships
- spend money unwisely and have other trouble with personal finances
- consistently avoid addressing relationship issues in productive ways
People with Peter Pan syndrome also tend to struggle with job and career goals, according to Cheatham.
- have a pattern of job loss due to lack of effort, tardiness, or skipping work
- make little real effort to find a job
- leave jobs frequently when they feel bored, challenged, or stressed
- only take part-time work and have no interest in pursuing promotion opportunities
- move from field to field without spending time developing skills in any particular area
In some cases, this issue can also show up in the form of unrealistic goals, such as dreams of becoming a pro athlete or landing a record deal.
These are certainly possibilities for some people, and there’s nothing wrong with pursuing them in healthy ways. But if these ambitions prevent success in other areas of life, it may be time to consider more realistic career options.
Spinning these dreams as reality without making any real effort to achieve them can also suggest Peter Pan syndrome.
Attitude, mood, and behavioral signs
People with Peter Pan syndrome may seem a little helpless. You might have a general impression they can’t “get it together” and notice things like:
- a pattern of unreliability and flaking out
- emotional outbursts when facing stressful situations
- a tendency to make excuses and blame others when things go wrong
- little or no interest in personal growth
- expectations of being taken care of
- fear of negative evaluation
- a pattern of substance use, often with a goal of escaping difficult feelings or responsibilities
- a desire to keep their options open instead of making concrete plans
These signs can also relate to other issues, but someone who shows several of the above signs and symptoms may have Peter Pan syndrome.
Narcissism comes up a lot in discussions about Peter Pan syndrome, but they’re different concepts.
It’s true that some people living with this syndrome also show some narcissistic tendencies. But many people have some narcissistic traits without meeting full criteria for narcissistic personality disorder.
What’s more, not everyone with traits of Peter Pan syndrome also has traits of narcissism.
That said, the two issues do share some similarities.
People with narcissism may also:
- fail to accept accountability
- blame others for failures
- prioritize personal desires over others’ needs
- fear criticism or conflict
With narcissism, however, devaluation of others and a lack of empathy tend to accompany these behaviors.
Many experts consider narcissistic defenses an extreme method of compensating for low self-esteem and self-worth. People who make an effort to explore narcissistic traits in therapy may discover feelings of inadequacy and emptiness.
People with Peter Pan syndrome may arrive at those same feelings through a different route, according to Cheatham. He goes on to explain that, with few personal accomplishments to show others, they may face disrespect and dismissal.
Eventually, these experiences can play into feelings of low self-worth and failure, which some people may try to manage by “doubling down” on things like sensation-seeking and avoiding challenges.
“While the narcissistic dilemma reflects some of the downsides of Peter Pan syndrome,” Cheatham says, “I hesitate to say they’re directly related.”
Peter Pan syndrome is largely associated with males (and has been from the start). It’s worth noting, however, that most of Kiley’s research was done in the 1970s and ’80s, when gender roles were a bit more fixed than they are today.
Still, information from the University of Granada and a 2010 study looking at 29 young Navajo women both suggest it’s mostly — but not always — males who experience Peter Pan syndrome.
To date, there’s a lack of research examining how these behaviors show up across gender. The studies that do exist are pretty small.
While Kiley focused his research on males, he did identify a counterpart in females known as Wendy syndrome, in reference to Peter Pan’s female companion.
Much like in the story, females in this role often enable the Peter Pan in their lives, often without realizing it. They might do this by making decisions for them, tidying up their messes, and offering one-sided emotional support.
There’s no single cause for the behaviors associated with Peter Pan syndrome. It’s likely the result of the following complex factors.
“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 romanticize freedom and escapism,” Cheatham says.
Those with Peter Pan syndrome often have overly protective or very permissive parents. Those are two pretty different parenting styles, but here’s the breakdown:
Overly permissive parents often don’t set many (or any) boundaries on your behavior. As a result, you grow up believing it’s OK to do whatever you want.
When you did something wrong, your parents took care of any fallout and protected you from blame, so you never learned that certain actions have consequences.
If they took care of your financial needs into early adulthood and never expected you to work for things you wanted, you may not understand why you need to work now.
Protective parents, on the other hand, can make you feel as if the adult world is frightening and full of difficulties.
They might encourage you to enjoy childhood and fail to teach skills like budgeting, housecleaning or simple repair skills, and relationship maintenance behaviors.
Parents who want to prolong your youth may also avoid discussing these adult concepts with you. This can lead you to steer around these concepts in your own life.
Cheatham also points out that economic hardship and stagnation can contribute to Peter Pan syndrome, especially in younger generations. In other words, “adulting” might be a bit harder than it used to be.
“I think it takes more hustle, self-motivation, and social skills to guide a career than it did in the past,” he says.
Failure to Launch, a 2013 report generated by Georgetown University, suggests that technological and structural changes in the American economy make for a more jarring transition between adolescence and early adulthood.
Lower wages and fewer opportunities to get ahead in the workforce can also stall already low motivation to pursue a career you feel less than enthusiastic about.
College tuition rates that have outpaced inflation have created added financial stress and anxiety, which some people attempt to manage by avoiding financial responsibility entirely.
Maintaining a playful outlook can help reduce stress and improve long-term mental health, so having a child-like, curious personality can definitely have its upsides.
Someone with Peter Pan syndrome might, for example, live more spontaneously and encourage you to enjoy the small things in life. They might have a loving, sweet personality. You probably have a lot of fun together.
Peter Pan syndrome goes beyond everyday playfulness, however, and involves the skirting of responsibilities. When this mindset begins to creep into other aspects of life, problems can develop.
All of this sound a little too much like your partner?
While it is possible to encourage and support positive change in a partner, it’s generally not possible to change someone who isn’t ready or willing to do the work.
“Trying to change your partner’s level of commitment or ambition will only frustrate you both,” Cheatham explains. He cautions against radically lowering or modifying your expectations to continue the relationship.
Instead, he recommends communicating your own ambitions, expectations, and life goals.
“It’s about setting a tone of adulthood and seeing how they respect and respond to that,” Cheatham says.
If you’ve made your partner aware of what you want from the relationship and your life together, and they show no signs of sharing those same goals, it’s time decide whether to accept the relationship as it stands or seek out a partner whose goals and behaviors do align with what you want.
Ending enabling behaviors, like cleaning up after your partner or paying their bills, may help them recognize the need for change.
“All relationships involve compromise and negotiation, but hopefully you can find some middle path between changing someone and enabling them,” Cheatham concludes.
Adulthood brings plenty of complicated things to worry about: relationship and parenting challenges, student loan payments, joblessness, and more.
In short, it’s not easy to be a productive, tax-paying member of society. It’s pretty normal to wish you could return to your teenage years, when your primary responsibilities were biology exams and watching your little sister.
If you realize you tend to avoid necessary parts of adulthood, like finding consistent work or taking care of errands and chores, it’s important to understand why.
Although it’s certainly possible to make changes on your own, failing to identify the factors playing into these patterns can set you up to fall right back into them.
Therapy is key to successful exploration. Therapists can offer nonjudgmental support by helping you examine patterns in your life and notice how they affect your relationships and chances of success.
In therapy, you can also explore other concerns leading you to rely on your partner for emotional and financial support, including money worries, anxiety, or fears of loneliness.
Peter Pan syndrome is more of a set of behaviors than an official diagnosis. While it’s typically associated with males, it can apply to anyone.
If you feel like your partner exhibits these behaviors, all you can do is clarify your needs and goals. From that point, it’s your choice whether to take them as they are.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.