What Is Peter Pan Syndrome?

by Harley Therapy
Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

You will be familiar with the story of Peter Pan - the boy who spends an eternal childhood in the magical Neverland. However, this iconic character has also leant his name to a psychological condition, where an individual resists the ageing process and struggles to take on the responsibilities of adulthood as dictated by social norms.

Does Peter Pan Syndrome really exist?

While Peter Pan Syndrome is not an official clinical diagnosis itself, the term does relate to a number of different symptoms and mindsets experienced by a range of people.

The term ‘Peter Pan Syndrome’ originates from the 1983 book Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up by psychologist Dan Kelly. Working with psychologically troubled teenagers, Kelly developed his theory after finding that many teenage boys struggled to adapt to the responsibilities of adulthood. While both men and women can be affected by Peter Pan Syndrome, Kelly found it to be a largely male issue overall.

As Peter Pan Syndrome is a relatively new psychological phenomenon and is not given as an official clinical diagnosis, research into the condition has not been widely undertaken.

What Causes Peter Pan Syndrome?

There are a number of factors that can lead an individual to resist the ageing process and its associated expectations.

Individuals may experience high levels of anxiety when faced with the prospect of adult responsibilities, such as owning a home, securing a job, and paying the bills. If they can find a way to avoid this anxiety - perhaps through a parent willing to taken on some of their responsibilities - then they may refuse to engage with adult living.

As Kelly suggested in his original study, gender may also play a part in Peter Pan Syndrome. As woman are held up to social expectations of emotional labour, fulfilling household tasks, and motherhood, their male partners may turn away from similar adult duties.

Individuals with Peter Pan Syndrome may also experience loneliness and instability in relationships. They may search for partners who are younger and have no immediate future plans, or seek out partners who can act as caregivers.

Individuals who have been subject to helicopter parenting throughout childhood may also struggle to develop basic life skills and thus learn how to fend for themselves as they age.

How do I know if I have Peter Pan Syndrome?

Some characteristics of individuals with Peter Pan Syndrome can include:

Individuals who are frequently underemployed or unemployed: These are individuals who refuse to secure employment or struggle to maintain employment due to bad behaviour. Individuals who struggle to find secure employment due to social barriers should not be considered within this criteria.

Individuals who ‘fail to launch’: This is most commonly understood as individuals who still live at home with their immediate family despite opportunity to secure their own job, home, and finances.

Individuals who abandon commitments: This may be individuals who rely on their partner to handle adult responsibilities within the household in favour of their own hobbies and interests.

Individuals who rely on others for their financial responsibilities: This may be individuals who rely on other people to tackle their money issues with little return.

Can Peter Pan Syndrome be treated?

Psychotherapy can be beneficial for individuals experiencing anxieties surrounding adult responsibilities and getting older. A professional therapist or counsellor can work with their client to uncover the root cause of their resistance to adult responsibility within a safe and confidential space. They can also help draw up a treatment plan to ease their client into adulthood and its expectations.

Family therapy or couples counselling may also be beneficial to those experiencing Peter Pan Syndrome. As the individual’s condition can often negatively affect the people around them, discussing these issues with a mental health professional may help promote understanding. A therapist or counsellor can also work with the family to promote more balanced relationships.

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