Peter Pan is a cultural figure about a boy who never grows up. He represents the fantasy that most people have at some point about not having to mature and deal with adult responsibilities. There is an American adaptation of the Peter Pan story starring Robin Williams called Hook. It focuses on the idea that Peter Pan actually grew up and what happens to his life once he does. The whole premise is that he becomes a man who takes his job too seriously, misses out on time with his family, and forgets how to have fun. It is a really interesting movie but even illustrates the feared concept that once people grow up, they forget how to enjoy life and they take everything, including themselves, too seriously. No one wants to become the person that takes life too seriously and cannot have fun. That is often times what makes college students love college: they get to be on their own but many of them do not have the responsibilities of an adult in the workforce. Isn’t that the dream, to be independent but not have a care in the world? Unfortunately, that is unrealistic. Everyone has to mature and take responsibility at some point in life, particularly if they want to be successful.
Peter Pan syndrome is the person who refuses to “grow up” and avoids responsibilities. There is even a term tossed around called “manolescent” describing a man who eludes all adult responsibilities. It is not a clinical diagnosis, but it is a term that can describe someone who displays an unwillingness to face the adult world. Someone who fits this description might display the following symptoms:
- Illustrate a lack of goals and interest in a career
- Display unreliability
- Cannot seem to handle adult situations and/or emotions
- Blame others
- Use escape methods for coping like drugs or alcohol
- Find it difficult to commit
- Express no desire to change
It can be difficult to watch someone exhibit this type of behavior. There might be a fear they cannot take care of themselves if they are “cut off.” However, it is important to not enable this kind of behavior. In order for them to live the life they want to live, they need someone to support them. If the support it stopped, it will be difficult for them to continue the zero responsibility lifestyle. It also helps to remove some of the tools they use to avoid and distract. For example, if they are spending all their time online, it can help to remove those temptations from their daily life.
The next step would include adding responsibilities into their life. Help them grow in self-confidence, showing them they are capable of handling life and adult responsibilities. It can also demonstrate to them that being an adult, while it can be really challenging, also has some great benefits.
When making changes, there will be push back. People who fit this term are likely going to vehemently resist the idea of growing up. They will need some tough love but it will be important to also provide encouragement. Part of what they might need to explore is what might be keeping them from avoiding responsibilities to begin with. Becoming an adult and dealing with greater responsibilities along with real world problems can be terrifying. If it is fear that is holding them back, it would be helpful for them to work through that fear. Whatever the underlying issue might be, seeking professional support like counseling can be a great resource for helping the person who just doesn’t want to grow up.
Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She also has a special interest in working with athletes and has been bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is in the process of becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant to further her expertise in sports psychology. Prior to her move to Abilene, Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.