We can all probably agree that adulting is just hard sometimes. Between paying the bills on time, taking care of the kids and carving out space for social interactions, it all piles up really fast, leaving some of us wishing we could skirt our responsibilities for good.
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But for some, growing up seems near impossible — so much so, that their immaturity can ruin relationships, hinder employment and have a lasting impact on their mental and physical health.
Growing up is particularly difficult for people who have what’s popularly known as Peter Pan syndrome, but what can they do to break the cycle of immaturity and when is it a real problem? Registered psychotherapist Natacha Duke, MA, RP, helps us parse out the details.
Peter Pan syndrome (PPS), while not a recognized diagnosis, is a popular psychology term used to describe an adult who has difficulty growing up. The term is derived from the fictional character of Peter Pan, a magical boy who never grows old, created by J.M. Barrie in 1902.
People with this syndrome exhibit a series of social behaviors, ideologies and traits that are considered immature. In most cases, they may struggle with commitment, maintaining employment, doing chores, keeping up with responsibilities and having purposeful direction in their lives. Although it’s more common in cisgender men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB), anyone of any sex or gender can develop the behaviors associated with the syndrome.
“Much like Peter Pan, these individuals experience a failure to launch or a refusal to grow up,” says Duke. “There’s sort of an egocentric nature to them and they continuously avoid responsibility and commitment and don’t take on those adult responsibilities that most people do.”
Because of their inability to take on adult tasks, people with PPS will often seek out others who have what’s called Wendy syndrome. Named after Barrie’s fictional character Wendy Darling, who was created in 1904 as Peter Pan’s friend, Wendy syndrome also isn’t an official diagnosis, but a popular psychology term used to describe an adult who is empathetic, nurturing and even self-sacrificing. Although more common in cisgender women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB), anyone of any sex or gender can exhibit these behaviors.
“People who have PPS tend to gravitate toward people who have Wendy syndrome, people who are highly nurturing and want to be of service to others,” says Duke.
“In the beginning, it’s a match made in heaven. You have someone with PPS who’s really fun and charismatic that draws this other person in, and the person who has Wendy syndrome is able to be there for them, support them and offer suggestions to try to better them. But the problem is that it eventually backfires, and the person with Wendy syndrome inevitably starts to feel taken advantage of.”
With the Peter Pan and Wendy syndromes, the relationship ultimately falls apart when both people are at odds with each other’s behaviors.
“People with Wendy syndrome tend to experience emotional burnout because they’re constantly feeling like they’re giving and giving and not getting anything in return,” notes Duke. “At the same time, people with PPS may feel that their partner is controlling, trying to change them or smothering them.”
As people with PPS have difficulty maintaining healthy boundaries, they’ll often jump from one person or relationship to the next in search of people who enable their behaviors and support them in all the ways they have difficulty supporting themselves.
“What happens is that in the end, there’s never really any learning happening on either side,” says Duke.
Although Peter Pan syndrome isn’t a diagnosable condition, it has quite a bit of overlap with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). While people with NPD exhibit a similar pattern of selfishness as people who have PPS, they also tend to hold a much higher degree of self-importance and entitlement.
“With NPD, the person is not just egocentric but there’s a greater sense of manipulation,” clarifies Duke. “Someone with NPD tends to be very sensitive to criticism and can turn to rage in a flash.”
People with PPS may not be so quick to anger or revenge, but they do tend to be avoidant when it comes to conflict resolution and are more apt to rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms.
“There’s this tendency to want to escape and avoid commitment,” says Duke.
Research has found that both permissive and over-protective parenting styles may be potential contributors to PPS. With permissive parenting, the child may have difficulty learning the importance of healthy boundaries.
“Boundaries are really important as we take on adult responsibilities the more we learn and grow,” says Duke.
And over-protective or helicopter parenting, though well-intentioned, may lead to a child having difficulty taking care of themselves in some areas down the line.
“Having these parenting styles doesn’t necessarily mean someone will develop NPD or PPS, but they are risk factors,” notes Duke.
Other contributing factors may include childhood trauma. And while the road to Peter Pan syndrome may look different for everyone, social pressures and online acceptance of youthful behavior, freedom and adventure often play supportive roles in developing such behaviors.
“In cases where kids have grown up in dire circumstances, there’s sometimes this need to relive childhood in adulthood,” says Duke.
Regardless of the potential contributing factors for developing this syndrome, at the core of these behavioral patterns exists a difficulty with distress tolerance or the ability to tolerate uncomfortable feelings.
“These uncomfortable feelings can be associated with anxiety, sadness, loneliness or even when we’re being criticized,” states Duke. “For people with Peter Pan syndrome, their distress tolerance is very low, which leads them to avoid certain situations because there’s this tendency to not be able to hold onto or tolerate these more difficult feelings.”
Often, issues with behaviors associated with PPS show up in personal relationships and work environments.
In the earliest stages of a relationship, people with PPS may attract a lot of attention because of their charisma, sense of adventure and fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants mentality. They’re fun to be around and fun to explore new activities with, and their childlike nature is almost endearing.
On the surface, it may feel natural to help them when they’re in a bind or support them when they inevitably fall into a rough spot with work, family or other adult responsibilities. Often, someone with this syndrome may ask for help with such things because of a low level of distress tolerance — and if someone enables that behavior by taking ownership of those responsibilities, a codependent relationship is often the outcome.
“But what typically happens over time in these relationships is that the person supporting the individual with PPS gets to a point where they say, ‘Enough is enough,’” says Duke. “The person with PPS has too much reliance on their partner to handle difficult tasks like writing a resume, paying a bill or looking for a job. That can get old for the supporting partner really quickly.”
When conflicts arise or the person who has PPS is confronted about their lack of maturity, even having a healthy, productive conversation may prove to be difficult.
“There’s a lot of blaming other people for their shortcomings or their behaviors and a lack of personal insight,” explains Duke. “Without being able to tolerate distress, it’s really hard to hear any criticism and therefore it becomes really difficult to have mature conflict resolution.”
Because of this, you may see someone with PPS jumping from one relationship to the next in a very short-lived amount of time. Ghosting a relationship is also a common practice for people with PPS.
Because there tends to be a lack of commitment, people with PPS may often have problems with employment and difficulty handling authority. Even starting the application process may prove to be difficult, but if they do find employment and they’re faced with conflict, they may abandon ship and run to the next job they can find without taking accountability for their actions.
“Part of being an adult is accepting that there are things in life that are very mundane. You have to sometimes go to work when you don’t feel like it,” says Duke. “People who have this syndrome don’t accept that.”
You can’t remain childlike and exist in goblin mode forever — at least not if it’s causing serious problems in your relationships or your overall ability to function. Like most things related to psychology, the characteristics of Peter Pan syndrome exist on a spectrum, and what’s problematic for some may not be problematic for others.
“Sometimes, these types of behaviors are non-problems if they don’t affect someone’s life or functioning in at least one significant area,” notes Duke. “With Peter Pan syndrome, often someone else is bringing you to therapy or encouraging you to go to therapy because there is a lack of personal insight into what’s really happening.”
Broaching the topic and pointing out the issues associated with this syndrome can be difficult.
According to Duke, “In general, people are very defensive because there is a lack of insight into the difficulty that surrounds their behaviors.”
And while you can’t force someone to get involved in therapy, you can set your own personal boundaries to protect yourself and hold the other person accountable when things don’t go well.
“If there’s a behavior the person is exhibiting and you’re uncomfortable with it, or they keep lashing out at you or they’re treating you disrespectfully, the best thing you can do is to start by labeling that behavior as ‘not OK’ because of your own self-respecting boundaries, and then second, to encourage therapy,” advises Duke.
“If a person doesn’t want to go to therapy and doesn’t want to make any changes, then you need to determine what your own barometer for that behavior is and what you are and are not OK with accepting.”
Suggesting individual, family or couples therapy could be a beneficial start for all involved because it will help shed light on how their accumulated life experiences have gotten them to this point and how some of the behaviors they exhibit are not serving them well.
“For therapy to work, they need to be willing to recognize and discuss what changes they want for their life and the cost of continuing if they do not make these changes,” she adds.
So, what does therapy look like for someone with Peter Pan syndrome? Well, for starters, a therapist may start by asking you questions about your family history and screen for any mental health disorders or childhood trauma you’ve experienced in the past.
Duke explains that “We look at your family history and the parenting dynamics you’ve experienced and really start to build that insight muscle. If we can understand how our problems came to be, then we can start to make progress and make the decision to want to do something different.”
If you exhibit characteristics of PPS, your therapist can help you focus on one area of your life where you do feel comfortable taking on more responsibility. For example, if you have anxiety over job applications, they may help you investigate these feelings and set a goal to create your own resume. If you have difficulty maintaining a relationship, a therapist can help you examine why and help you define what you’re looking for in a relationship.
“Often, at the core of entitled and self-centered behavior is very low self-esteem,” says Duke. “Therapy can help people improve their self-esteem, self-confidence and self-compassion.”
And often, the core of therapy sessions revolves around increasing one’s distress tolerance, making space for feelings, and practicing the ability to identify, express and challenge these feelings in small steps.
“What often happens with people who have a low distress tolerance is that the minute something uncomfortable bubbles up, they push it away. They’re not even really knowing what they’re feeling and there’s not that connection,” says Duke.
“So, we start by naming our feelings and start to make space for those feelings, even if we do that for just one minute.”
Making space for your feelings looks a lot like giving your emotions life and asking yourself questions like:
Making space for feelings is challenging for many people because they’re used to pushing them away or distracting themselves from difficult emotions. But by embracing and connecting differently to our feelings, we can begin to have a more authentic experience with ourselves and with other people, which, in turn, makes us become less reliant on unhealthy coping behaviors.
“Really, it’s about staying with that feeling and trying to give it more life as opposed to fleeing from it or avoiding it. By doing this, you’re building that distress tolerance,” says Duke.
“The more you stay with your feelings and the more you’re able to tolerate them, the less you’re going to be scared of them and you’re not going to rely on those negative coping strategies.”
If you’ve been told that you struggle with growing up or taking responsibility, or if you feel like your relationships are strained, you may want to consider speaking with a therapist. A therapist can help you navigate these areas of your life and improve your self-understanding, interpersonal skills and critical thinking.