How to Recognize and Deal With Peter Pan Syndrome

10 Apr 2024
8 min read
Peter Pan Syndrome - All You Need to Know

Being an adult is not easy. There are many responsibilities – taking care of personal finances, having a job, maintaining a residence, pursuing career goals, etc. Yes, the adult world, with all of its adult responsibilities, can be tough indeed. And it’s normal to occasionally wish we could just retreat from adult life and go back in time to when life was simple and carefree. But some of us may fall into what’s called Peter Pan Syndrome.

Named after the Peter Pan novel character, Peter Pan Syndrome (PPS) refers to a symbol of eternal youth and escapism who is never managing adult responsibilities or addressing the challenges of maintaining adult relationships. Thus, the difference between us and people with PPS is that they are chronologically and physically adults but live in that simple carefree world of a child all the time.

Peter Pan Syndrom as a Mental Health Condition

“Much like Peter Pan, these individuals experience a failure to launch or a refusal to grow up…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.”

Natacha Duke, psychotherapist

PPS isn’t in a diagnostic and statistical manual of psychology, nor does the World Health Organization recognize it among mental disorders. Rather, it’s a term psychologists use to describe a set of behaviors that, in some cases, can be associated with narcissistic personality disorder. That’s why PPS is a recognized mental health condition.

People who exhibit Peter Pan syndrome can demonstrate these behaviors:

  • Inability to make commitments
  • Trouble keeping a job
  • Failing to do commonly required chores
  • Inability to maintain normal adult responsibilities
  • Lacking goals and purpose in their lives
  • Seeking codependent relationships with responsible but enabling others

How do these men function in romantic relationships? Well, they need to find a Wendy, meaning a person who shares the personality traits of Wendy Darling, Peter Pan’s friend in the novel.

Related reading: How to Deal With Clingy Behavior in Relationships

Wendy Syndrome

People with PPS will not form healthy relationships. Instead, they will look for people who will take care of them – people who have lots of empathy, want to nurture and serve, and are willing to make sacrifices. People who exhibit these enabling behaviors in a relationship are said to have Wendy Syndrome.

The relationship between a person with Peter Pan Syndrome and a person with Wendy Syndrome is codependent. Eventually, Wendy starts suffering frustration and burnout as she is continually giving, Peter is continually taking, and it’s just exhausting. As romantic partners, they aren’t going to make it. And Peter will move on to other, often short-lived relationships.

Ultimately, she becomes resentful that she has an unfair burden and gets nothing in return. Peter, on the other hand, often feels like his Wendy is trying to control him too much.

Here’s a scenario. Wendy works full-time, cooks the meals, and cleans the house. Peter is in between jobs and spends most of his time playing video games and hanging out with friends. He may get a job and then sabotage it because he really doesn’t want the responsibility – it’s just too much of one of those adult concepts.

PPS vs. Narcissistic Personality Disorder

The main difference between Peter Pan Syndrome and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is that NPD is a mental health formal diagnosis. However, they are very similar in their symptoms, as both people are exhibiting selfishness and “taking” from others in their relationships and giving very little (if anything).

At the same time, NPD behavior is far more manipulative. Also, in contrast to PPS, those with NPD have a sense of entitlement and self-importance. Finally, NPD may present with anger and lash out when criticized.

PPS rarely presents this way. Instead, they avoid conflict by finding ways to “escape” uncomfortable interactions that point out their failings. That’s too adult for them.

Related reading: Recognizing and Dealing With Narcissists in Relationships

What Causes Peter Pan Syndrome?

Psychologist Dr. Dan Kiley, the author of The Peter Pan Syndrome research, states that the PPS roots begin in childhood with parenting styles that are either over-protective or too permissive.

Helicopter parents, as they are called, do everything and take care of their children. These are often maternal relationships between mother and son, although male parents can be involved. The result is that the child grows up unable to take care of themselves or take on normal adult responsibilities for their own or others’ well-being.

At the other end of the spectrum are overly permissive parents – those who set no boundaries for their children’s behaviors. Such parents don’t lead children into responsible adulthood. These kids grow up not able to set healthy boundaries, which, in turn, translates into difficulties in how they treat future romantic partners, work life, and personal growth and development.

Still, another possible cause may be childhood trauma, especially neglect and abuse at a young age. Some victims move into adulthood, longing for the carefree, happy childhood they didn’t have. And so, they adopt childlike behaviors – immaturity, inability to take responsibility for themselves, and looking for a mother figure in their relationships. And if they find a Wendy, they’re set, having that nurturing mom.

9 common signs of Peter Pan Syndrome

9 Symptoms and Signs of Peter Pan Syndrome

You can spot signs and symptoms of Peter Pan Syndrome since early adulthood, so apply them to someone you’re dating or studying with. In this section, we’ll describe the most common behavior patterns you can observe while building relationships with Peter Pan.

1. Distress in Uncomfortable Situations

When faced with situations in which they are required to respond in an adult and reasonable way, people with Peter Pan Syndrome present negative emotions and do whatever they can to avoid challenging situations.

These reactions may be passive, such as isolating themselves from partners, friends, co-workers, or family members. If aggressive, they may lash out with emotional outbursts or, over long-term pressure situations, may develop eating disorders, substance use disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, exhibit some narcissistic traits such as blaming others for a situation they cannot confront, or develop other mental health issues.

2. Inability to Make Future Plans

Most adults set long-term goals and develop plans to achieve them. Peters, whether male or female, cannot do this. In romantic relationships, they often jump from one relationship to another to avoid this.

Some characterize them as thinking no further than the next 24 hours. This translates to an inability to form healthy romantic relationships – which would require making plans and keeping promises. If they find someone with Wendy syndrome, they will stay only as long as Wendy keeps taking care of all of their wants and needs. Maintaining relationships over the long haul isn’t their goal.

Related reading: Male Maturity – When Does It Kick In?

3. Indecisiveness

A big part of adulting is making decisions – every day, large and small. Peter may very well be able to decide what he wants for dinner or to wear on a given day. But beyond that, the larger decisions paralyze him.

If Peter had overprotective parents, the larger decisions were made for him, so he would not have learned to make them and live with the consequences. Peter prefers to have others make those larger decisions, and he thus avoids any accountability for them.

4. No Interest in Personal Growth

Most young adults look forward to personal development as they go through life. They welcome challenges and opportunities that will bring about improvement:

  • Taking on tough projects at work
  • Engaging in work for causes they believe in
  • Going back to school to pursue additional degrees

However, people with Peter Pan syndrome tend to avoid such actions and healthy relationships. As long as someone else meets his needs, there is no need to grow. And if they spot any challenges maintaining adult relationships, they simply quit.

5. Weak Financial Management

Those with Peter Pan syndrome are not motivated to earn income and manage their finances. Ideally, they are looking for Wendy to do all that. It’s easier for them than learning how to manage employment responsibilities, paychecks, and bills.

Related reading: Ways to Turn On the Hero Instinct in Men

6. Problems With Male Authority Figures

Males with Peter Pan Syndrome have problems with males who have patriarchal ideas, usually their fathers. But this transfers to the workplace, too, where they have a tough time accepting direction from a male supervisor. It’s just tough for them to build relationships with males, and a negative evaluation is a perfect cause to quit for them.

These gender roles are reversed if Peter is female.

7. Relying on Others

We’ve about beaten this one to death. As adults without a Wendy, they will rely on family members, often their parents, and still live at home with them. This is often known as “failure to launch syndrome.” They choose security and dependence over freedom and growth.

Related reading: A Guide to Growing an Exclusive Relationship

8. Running From Conflict

Since most people with Peter Pan Syndrome have a childlike emotional level, they respond to conflict by not responding or physically retreating from any conflict. No matter what they did, the conflict will always be the other person’s fault. This applies to the job, too.

9. Sexual Relationships Are “Different”

Surprisingly, Kiley found that Peters tended to want more control in their sexual roles, especially since they have so many other social challenges – no emotional paralysis here. This may result from their thinking that they are not dependent.

How can you help your Wendy-Peter Pan dynamic

Helping Someone with Peter Pan Syndrome: 3 Tips

Beyond all of this, if you believe you are in a relationship with a Peter, what do you do? If you care about this Peter, being confrontational will never be the right approach. Instead, take a look at these strategies.

1. Stop Your Enabling Behaviors

Stop doing everything for your Peter. Start with small things to do that:

  • Don’t do their laundry anymore and tell them you just don’t have the time anymore
  • Give them a grocery list and tell them to do the shopping while you are at work

Then, you can work up to larger things. Explain that you can no longer keep doing everything for them unless they are willing to do things for you in turn. Involve a mental health professional to help you both, if needed. This is the basis of a healthy relationship, after all.

Related reading: Boundaries in Relationships – Keeping Them Healthy

2. Introduce Them to Adult Concepts Over Time

Again, don’t overwhelm young adults with PPS with too much information at once. Do it one at a time. They may experience some uncomfortable feelings and start looking for other mother figures to help them cope with what you bring up – but if your relationship is worth saving, they’ll make it through. Starting with work-related signs will be easier for you both, by the way.

Identify a job they might be interested in and that you know they can perform. Bring it to their attention and suggest they apply. After all, they will have their own money, as you have to tighten up your budget and won’t have much to give them anymore.

3. Do Your Best to Remove Distractions

Is your Peter spending too much time online or video gaming? The answer is simple. Tell them you can no longer afford Internet costs or to pay their phone and/or subscription fees. If they want all of these things, they will have to think about getting a job and helping out.

What’s the worst that can happen? Your Peter will leave and find another Wendy. It may be painful, but with good therapy, you’ll learn to look for healthy relationships with a supportive partner.

Let’s Wrap Up: 5 Facts About PPS

There are some important points we’ve made here regarding Peter Pan Syndrome and people who have similar narcissistic tendencies.

1. Peter Pan Syndrome Is a Set of Behaviors, Not a Clinical Diagnosis

There is no official diagnosis of Peter Pan Syndrome in the field of psychology, and there are no “official symptoms” as there are with other mental health disorders. Further, there is not a great deal of research on the matter.

In general, we know that Peter Pan Syndrome involves a failure to move into normal adulthood and take responsibility for one’s own well-being and growth.

2. Peter Pan Syndrome Comes From Early Childhood

Children who were over-protected, raised with no boundaries, or who were abused/neglected are more likely to develop Peter Pan Syndrome. That’s why PPS can appear in both female relationships and male relationships, as the difficult feelings are more important than the gender here.

3. Peter Pan Syndrome Presents in Certain Signs

The most common symptoms of Peter Pan Syndrome include the inability to deal with stress/pressure, refusal to take responsibility for one’s actions, avoiding conflict, difficulties with managing money, holding a job, and depending on others for everything.

4. Peters Need a Wendy in Relationships

A Wendy is a supporting partner a Peter can rely on. When they have a Wendy, they are content. When that Wendy is no longer willing to take care of them, they move on and find another one. This way, PPS adults continue their childlike behaviors, avoid taking responsibility for their lives, and negatively affect any relationship they have.

5. Not Everyone Who Is Not Adulting Is a Peter Pan

Much has changed since Dr. Kiley first wrote his book. Today, many Gen Z adults are not assuming the responsibilities that society has traditionally considered adulting. They are living in uncertain times, putting off marriage and kids, not buying homes, and changing jobs and careers quite often. If that’s what you observe, they are not Peters. Don’t rush into conclusions too early.

Dating Tips Author
Shelly Standford
After a devastating relationship breakup, I threw myself into the dating scene by registering on Hily. I had over 100 dates - some absolute disasters, some pretty average, and some that were actually great. So many stories to tell and insights to share with you guys!

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