Some psychologists use the term Peter Pan syndrome to describe people who have difficulty entering adulthood. They can have challenges maintaining typical adult relationships and managing adult responsibilities.

Dr. Dan Kiley coined the term in his 1983 book The Peter Pan syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up. Later, he published The Wendy Dilemma, outlining the difficulties of young females in relationships with “Peter Pans.”

Much of this earlier research has its basis in outdated, patriarchal ideas of gender and sexuality. However, Peter Pan syndrome may apply to people of any gender.

People with characteristics of Peter Pan syndrome may find it challenging to adopt adult responsibilities, have difficulty maintaining healthy relationships, and have a fond nostalgia for their youth.

While most people may occasionally long for the simplicity of childhood, people with Peter Pan syndrome can have difficulty living a typical adult life.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Peter Pan syndrome is an informal term that some psychologists use to describe this behavior. It is not a formal diagnosis, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM5-TR) do not recognize it.

Peter Pan syndrome describes people who have difficulty entering adult life. They may find it challenging to manage typical adult responsibilities, such as keeping a job and maintaining healthy relationships.

According to Kiley, people with Peter Pan syndrome may show behaviors such as procrastination and may display narcissistic personality traits. He says this makes it challenging for them to have functional social, professional, and romantic relationships.

He states that because people with Peter Pan syndrome may have difficulty accepting responsibility, they may blame others for problems. They may also have difficulty expressing their emotions, which can contribute to issues maintaining relationships.

Learn more about narcissistic personality disorder.

As Peter Pan syndrome is not a formal diagnosis, no distinct criteria define the condition. However, some typical signs may include:

  • difficulty with responsibilities and commitment
  • issues with work and career interests
  • dull or inappropriate emotions, such as intense rage instead of anger
  • being vain and self-centered
  • fear of loneliness
  • difficulty controlling impulsive behavior
  • reliance on others
  • avoidance of criticism

A key characteristic of Peter Pan syndrome is having difficulty with personal and romantic relationships. Some people frequently change partners, ending relationships once they require a higher level of commitment.

Learn more about on and off relationships.

Kiley’s key markers

In his 1997 book Men Who Never Grow Up, Kiley listed the following seven key markers of Peter Pan syndrome:

  • Emotional paralysis: People may have dulled emotions or express their feelings inappropriately.
  • Slowness: They may be apathetic, procrastinate tasks, and are frequently late.
  • Social challenges: They may feel anxious and have difficulty forming meaningful friendships.
  • Avoidance of responsibility: People often avoid taking accountability for their mistakes and may blame others.
  • Female relationships: People may have difficulty with maternal relationships and treat future romantic partners as “mother figures.”
  • Male relationships: They may feel distant from their father and have trouble with male authority figures.
  • Sexual relationships: They may be afraid of rejection from romantic partners and desire a partner who is dependent on them.

It is clear that Kiley bases many of the criteria on outdated, patriarchal ideas of gender and sexuality. Modern views of Peter Pan syndrome may not reflect this.

For example, while earlier texts stated that Peter Pan syndrome only affected males, these characteristics can affect anyone, regardless of sex or gender.

Learn more about sex and gender.

There is little research on Peter Pan syndrome, so psychologists do not exactly know what causes the syndrome’s behaviors. Some experts believe that having overprotective parents or caregivers can make a person more likely to develop it.

The rationale behind this is that when caregivers shelter or overprotect children, they do not develop the skills they need to deal with the challenges of real life. They may expect the same safe, privileged childhood environment when they grow into adulthood.

According to Kiley, the seeds of Peter Pan syndrome are sown in childhood. Symptoms may start to appear around ages 11 to 12 years, and as the child moves into adolescence, they become more prevalent.

Learn about parental anxiety and how it can affect a child.

Peter Pan syndrome can cause issues with maintaining healthy romantic relationships. A person may have difficulty expressing their emotions, listening to their partner, and playing an equal role in the relationship. Additionally, they may place an unfair burden on their partner.

In line with Kiley’s idea that Peter Pan syndrome only affected males, he released a companion book titled The Wendy Dilemma in 1985. Although this book relies on gendered stereotypes, the theory can apply to any person who is a romantic partner of a “Peter Pan.”

The book hinges on the premise that “Wendy” is the supporting partner behind a “Peter Pan.” As the “Peter Pan” has no interest or believes others should take care of adult responsibilities, such as making decisions, paying the bills, preparing the meals, and more, the “Wendy” in the relationship must pick up the slack.

Some people who fall into these roles may not even realize they are doing so. This may cause significant relationship issues and adversely affect both partners.

Based on their past experiences and personalities, some individuals may be more likely to enable unbalanced behavior in relationships.

Learn more about toxic relationships.

Many characteristics of Peter Pan syndrome — such as lack of interest in work, difficulty maintaining adult responsibilities, and communication issues in relationships — may sound remarkably familiar to some young adults.

Many have experienced these before. This raises the question: Is it Peter Pan or something else entirely? Becoming an adult does not happen overnight. It is a gradual process that can take months and years.

Historically, key markers of adulthood included marriage, home ownership, and parenthood. When people reached these “milestones,” they were automatically forced to take on a new level of responsibility, and the markers enforced stability that defined them as adults.

However, the current generation of young adults is experiencing a vastly different socioeconomic landscape, which means these milestones are becoming increasingly unobtainable.

As the average age for marriage and first-time parenthood has increased and home ownership is becoming increasingly unattainable, many young people may feel they have not truly reached adulthood.

Learn more about how to encourage communication in a relationship.

It is important to know that adulthood happens with or without these milestones, even though it may be difficult to see adult life as different from past generations.

Experiencing uncomfortable feelings as one enters young adulthood is natural. Many people have difficulty with the responsibilities of “adulting,” and nearly everyone occasionally longs for the simplicity of childhood.

However, if a person consistently finds maintaining healthy relationships and adult responsibilities challenging, it may be a good idea to contact a mental health professional.

Peter Pan syndrome is a popular psychology term for people who find it difficult to “grow up.” These people often have challenges managing adult responsibilities and maintaining adult relationships.

Although early research traditionally referred to Peter Pan syndrome in males, this term may apply to any person regardless of sex or gender.

Having difficulty with adult responsibilities can affect anyone. However, if a person consistently finds this challenging, they may wish to contact a mental health professional.

Mental health resources

Visit our dedicated hub for more research-backed information and resources on mental health and well-being.

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