Peter Pan Syndrome: Adults Who Never Grow Up

Do you know someone who, despite being an adult, evades all responsibility and exasperates you with their immaturity? Some people exhibit completely childish behaviors that are difficult to deal with. We'll explain what to do in these situations.
Peter Pan Syndrome: Adults Who Never Grow Up
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 22 April, 2023

Some people in their 30s or 40s are childish and immature. They’re difficult to live with because they don’t take responsibility for anything, are allergic to commitment, and exhibit extremely selfish behavior. While these childish adults don’t fit into any clinical category or psychological disorder as such, they do represent a common phenomenon known as Peter Pan syndrome.

Behind these behavior patterns usually lie poor parenting styles, attachment style disturbances, or narcissistic personalities. In fact, although it may sound surprising, these individuals are usually unhappy and exhibit problems in their social relationships. If you live with someone who fits this personality profile, we’ll explain what you can do.

Being mature means assuming responsibility for our actions, being clear about our obligations and knowing how to live in society. Those who avoid these characteristics become like the character created by J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan.

red-haired girl representing adults with Peter Pan syndrome
Childish adults often throw tantrums like small children, due to their inability to resist frustration.

The causes of Peter Pan syndrome

Perhaps you know someone who’s unable to maintain a relationship. Or, maybe you have colleagues with whom it’s impossible to achieve any goals due to their lack of responsibility. Adults with Peter Pan syndrome are those people whose chronological age doesn’t coincide with their behavior. They’re immature and childish with a tendency to exhibit avoidance behaviors.

Although this condition doesn’t appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the infantile adult could be suffering from other underlying disorders. Moreover, their behavior is clearly problematic in all social and emotional areas. Let’s examine what lies behind this kind of behavior.

1. Permissive or overprotective parenting styles

Some families exhibit deficient parenting styles. These can alter a child’s psychosocial development. For instance, the absence of clear boundaries, permissiveness, and a lack of assumption of responsibilities in their childhood often lie behind the adult with Peter Pan syndrome.

The impact of overprotection in both the short and long term shouldn’t be ignored. For example, research conducted by California State University (USA), highlights the image of helicopter parents. They’re the kinds who excessively control the lives of their children. This later reduces their children’s self-efficacy when they’re at university or work.

As such, they turn them into individuals with serious problems in taking control of their own lives.

Above all, avoidant behavior defines the immature adult. Everything eludes them, even emotional intimacy.

2. Avoidant attachment

Emotional immaturity can also stem from an avoidant attachment style. The roots of this characteristic lie in childhood. However, in this case, instead of overprotection, the child suffers a lack of stable and nourishing affection in the emotional field.

These are situations in which the child’s caregivers didn’t favor the development of their emotional competencies. Consequently, they grow into an adult who flees from emotional intimacy and is incapable of building solid, mature, and healthy relationships.

3. Narcissistic personality

Peter Pan syndrome lies on a spectrum. Some sufferers exhibit more problematic traits while others only demonstrate a few. Often, this form of immaturity and lack of responsibility is expressed in a narcissistic personality. In these cases, their behavior is usually the most complex at all levels.

In fact, they’re selfish people, who burden others with their own responsibilities and seek to be the center of attention at all times. As we mentioned earlier, frequently, behind this pattern of behavior there lies a psychological condition. Narcissistic personality disorder is one example.

4. Lack of emotional skills and no resistance to frustration

Some adults possess the emotional skills of a three-year-old child. Indeed, this is the perfect representation of the adult with Peter Pan syndrome. Emotional skills should be established in childhood. However, in this condition, individuals reach middle-age with a clear refusal to even try and improve these abilities in any way.

In fact, this type of personality gets stuck in the inability to tolerate frustration and understand what it means to live in society and be an adult. They possess inflexible minds and are extremely resistant to change.

Peter Pan syndrome is more common in men, although it does occur in women.

The consequences of being a childish adult

There are many adults with Peter Pan syndrome. What’s more, given that parental overprotection has become increasingly common today, it’s possible that the number of childish adults will rise. So much so that we’ll soon have a scale to detect them, at least in the male gender.

In 2021, Ondokuz Mayıs University (Turkey), developed a technique to conduct such an evaluation. The instrument measures the most significant constructs of Peter Pan Syndrome. This will be extremely useful, both for its detection and treatment.

We’re already able to list the most common consequences of this psychosocial and emotional immaturity. In fact, these are the characteristics of people with Peter Pan syndrome:

  • They’re challenging.
  • They fear loneliness.
  • They’re extremely egotistic.
  • Their jobs don’t tend to last long.
  • They’re unable to handle stress.
  • They suffer from commitment phobias.
  • They’re unable to solve their problems.
  • They’re unable to achieve their personal goals.
  • They have few friends and tend to lose them after a short time.
  • They’re only motivated by their immediate wants and needs. They’re also extremely impulsive.
  • They exhibit a great dependence on certain figures. For example, their parents.
  • They demonstrate a high tendency toward mood disorders. For instance, depression.
  • They have tantrums, don’t regulate their emotions, and don’t respect those of others.
  • They don’t accept their responsibilities. Moreover, they’re good at making excuses and justifying why they don’t do it.
  • They often demonstrate passive-aggressive behaviors. For example, they use hints in their communication, they’re hostile, and they never assertively express what they feel or think.
couple representing adults with Peter Pan syndrome
Many people are in relationships with figures suffering from Peter Pan syndrome.

How to deal with people with Peter Pan syndrome

Adults with Peter Pan syndrome are unhappy. As well as the fact that their behavior, irresponsibility, and lack of social skills irritate those around them, they’re also destined to fail in society. This is because they’re personalities that are extremely resistant to and oppose change.

Dan Kiley was the psychologist who first coined this disorder in 1983 in his book, The Peter Pan Syndrome. He explained that many of his patients demonstrated this characteristic and that, in general, it was difficult for them to advance in therapy. However, today, there are new approaches and ways of dealing with this condition. Here are a few:

1. Explaining the consequences of not accepting responsibility

From a social point of view, it’s impossible for someone with this profile to adapt to daily reality. But, the childish adult must be aware of what happens when they don’t act responsibly. The result is social exclusion, loneliness, precariousness, and unhappiness. They must be told.

2. Avoid being their caretaker

The problem with Peter Pan Syndrome is that they sometimes find their Wendy. In other words, in many relationships, there’s an infantile person and a figure that cares for and rescues them. For a time, this union might nourish their needs, but it’s ultimately destined for failure and suffering.

We mustn’t pay attention to their every need by making their lives easier. They need to know the effect of their actions and accept some responsibility.

3. Guide them to seek specialized help

Psychological triggers lie behind this syndrome that must be understood and treated. Cognitive therapy can treat attachment problems, the scars of dysfunctional parenting, and emotional mismanagement. Sufferers might also experience covert depressions that require clinical and pharmacological treatments.


As a rule, adult immaturity is the symptom of a deeper reality. This must be addressed and healed. Indeed, its origins almost always lie in a childhood based on overprotection, a lack of boundaries, or, on the contrary, inattention. It’s worth remembering what the psychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik says: “No child is doomed by their past”.

Finally, mechanisms for improvement can be employed to make the Peter Pan Syndrome sufferer a socially functional person.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.