Adult woman with Peter Pan Syndrome

Peter Pan Syndrome

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There’s no entry for Peter Pan Syndrome in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). But that doesn’t mean this condition doesn’t actually exist. Throughout the nation, thousands of young adults are struggling (and failing) to establish productive, independent lives for themselves. 

What is Peter Pan Syndrome?

Peter Pan Syndrome (PPS) refers to young adults, typically in their 20s or 30s, who have been unwilling or unable to accept the responsibilities of adulthood. The condition is named after the famous “boy who wouldn’t grow up” from the play and novel by J.M. Barrie.

Many people who have PPS continue to live with their parents or other family members. If they have moved out of the house, they may be living with a boyfriend or girlfriend who has adopted a parent-like role in their relationship.

PPS is also sometimes referred to as “failure to launch,” a term that was popularized by the 2006 film of the same name. That film starred Matthew McConaughey as a 35-year-old who still lived who showed no interest in ever moving out of his parents’ house, much to their chagrin.

Signs and Symptoms of Peter Pan Syndrome 

As we noted in the previous section, Peter Pan Syndrome doesn’t appear in the DSM-5. So there is no set of formal, universally agreed-upon diagnostic criteria for this condition. However, there are a variety of common signs and behaviors.

Before we discuss these signs, it’s important to note that people of all genders can develop PPS. Although the fictional Peter Pan was a boy, the syndrome that bears his name is not gender specific. PPS is more common among young adult males, but females in the same general age range can also be affected.

The signs and symptoms that are typically associated with Peter Pan Syndrome include:

  • Complacency and low motivation
  • Job-hopping, which may involve frequently being fired and/or simply quitting
  • History of failed relationships
  • Inability to accept criticism
  • Tendency to have emotional outbursts
  • Insufficient stress management and conflict resolution skills
  • Unwillingness to accept responsibility when problems occur
  • Poor money management skills
  • Selfishness
  • Substance abuse 
  • Relying on others (such as their parents or partner) to make important decisions

What to Do if Your Adult Child Seems To Be Experiencing Peter Pan Syndrome

If you are the parent of a young adult male or female who has been exhibiting the signs of Peter Pan Syndrome, you are probably concerned about their future. You may also be frustrated with the choices they have been making (or failing to make).

These are normal, completely understandable responses. But fears and frustrations won’t solve the problem. Here are three steps you can take that may help:

  • Establish appropriate rules and boundaries: It can be difficult to set rules and boundaries for a young adult child. It can be even harder to maintain them. But failing to do so means that you are implicitly supporting (and even encouraging) your child’s unhealthy lifestyle. Effective rules include clear expectations, as well as ramifications if these expectations aren’t met. If you expect your child to contribute financially, get a job or enroll in school, refrain from substance abuse, or meet other standards, you need to let them know. And you need to be willing to enforce the penalties you’ve established if they fail to do so.
  • Encourage them to get professional help: Therapy can help your child get to the root of their problems, then develop appropriate strategies for addressing and overcoming their challenges. Are they struggling with anxiety, depression, PTSD, or another mental health concern? Has their substance abuse progressed to addiction? Completing a thorough assessment with a qualified professional can be a vital step toward a healthier future for them – and for you.
  • Consider therapy for yourself: Peter Pan Syndrome is a family problem. You may have contributed to your young adult child’s dysfunctional behaviors, and you have surely been affected by them. When you speak with a therapist or counselor, you can process your experiences and receive focused feedback. The professional that you consult with may even be able to provide you with actionable advice for helping your child.

Types of Treatment for Peter Pan Syndrome 

Treatment for Peter Pan Syndrome typically involves therapy and education. 

If someone with this syndrome also has anxiety, depression, or another mental health disorder, their treatment team may recommend certain prescription medications. But these medications would address only the symptoms of the mental health concerns, not the behaviors that fall under Peter Pan Syndrome. 

To determine the right type of therapy and education for a young adult who has Peter Pan Syndrome, an effective treatment provider will review their history, assess their needs, help them set realistic goals, and then develop a customized plan just for them.

Depending on a person’s unique circumstances, their care for Peter Pan Syndrome may include:

  • Individual psychotherapy: One-on-one conversations with a trained professional can be ideal forums for addressing issues that a young adult may be uncomfortable discussing in a group setting.
  • Group therapy: During group sessions, young adults with Peter Pan Syndrome can develop vital skills and share support with others who are working toward similar goals.
  • Family therapy: Family sessions are supportive environments where loved ones can resolve conflicts, develop healthier communication patterns, set appropriate boundaries, and learn how to better support each other.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT sessions can help young adults replace self-defeating thought and behavior patterns with healthier and more productive ways of thinking and acting.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): DBT focuses on skills development in areas such as mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness – all of which can be beneficial to a young adult with PPS.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy: If a young adult’s struggles with Peter Pan Syndrome are associated with untreated trauma (as was the case in the film Failure to Launch), EMDR can be a vital component of care.

Therapy and psychoeducation can help young adults in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Identifying and addressing the reasons for their inability to fully transition into adulthood
  • Developing more effective stress management and conflict resolution skills
  • Setting appropriate short- and long-term goals for themselves
  • Improving their self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries
  • Becoming accountable to themselves and others
  • Building an effective personal support network

Ideally, this combination of personalized therapy, focused education, and effective support can help young adults take greater responsibility for their decisions and establish a productive, independent lifestyle. 

To learn more about treatment for Peter Pan Syndrome in Los Angeles, California, or to schedule an assessment for a young adult in your life, please visit our Contact page or call us today.