” I want to stay a little boy forever and have fun. ” – Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie, 1911)
Once upon a time there was a little boy who refused to grow up… That child was Peter Pan, wanting to remain a child forever and living in Neverland. In J.M. Barrie’s original story, he even has a deep hatred for adults, and steals children to bring them to Neverland. It is especially the popular version of Disney which will give its name to the syndrome of Peter Pan, described by the American psychoanalyst Dan Kiley. Although not officially listed as a clinical condition, Peter Pan syndrome is considered a behavioral disorder, and is often equated with a fear of growing up.
The different symptoms of Peter Pan syndrome
The origin of Peter Pan syndrome is still not well known, due to a lack of studies on the subject, but some psychiatrists believe that it is a disorder that appears more frequently in people who have experienced a trauma in childhood or who have been deprived of their adolescence. These are usually men, who have been given a lot of important responsibilities at a very young age (in charge of the family, with professional obligations, etc.). However, there are cases where the parents will be overprotective this time, which makes it just as difficult to become independent. This malaise is revealed here by an anxiety at the idea of growing up and a desire to recover or catch up on periods of childhood.
A characteristic trait of people with this syndrome, in addition to immaturity, is a fear of commitment. Indeed, rather than face reality and their responsibilities, they will tend to take refuge in an imaginary world, whether through figurines and hypothetical scenarios or in video games and cartoons. Thus they adopt a childish behavior that hinders social relationships but also self-actualization, and can lead to depression.
Dan Kiley will describe four stages of Peter Pan syndrome, which evolves over time :
– From age 12 to 17, the adolescent has a tendency to turn inward, with marked irresponsibility and anxiety, but also fear or conflict for anything that touches the adult realm (such as professionalization or sexuality).
– From ages 18 to 25, the young adult exhibits dissatisfaction or maladjustment with the outside world, and may also become narcissistic, or even show contempt and hostility toward others.
– From age 26 to 30, the person enters the chronic phase of the Peter Pan syndrome, sometimes paradoxically with a need to display a mature adult appearance.
– After 45, the adult tries to recapture his or her childhood, and may suffer from depression, anxiety disorders, or sleep disorders.
The psychoanalyst will also describe seven main symptoms :
1. An inability to express emotions.
2. A difficulty in grasping the passage of time and a tendency to procrastinate, especially with tasks and obligations
3. Difficulty establishing lasting social relationships or friendships, and thus a tendency to remain solitary.
4. An avoidance and denial of responsibility.
5. Anger and guilt towards the mother figure.
6. A desire to be close to and please the father figure.
7. Conflict with women, with a tendency to be macho.
These symptoms are expressed in varying degrees. The majority of people will manage to establish a family life and assume their responsibilities as adults, but with a feeling of not fitting in. Others will escape to their fantasy land and run away from their obligations and constraints, both professional, relational and personal.
Management and therapy
The first step is to recognize the existence of a disorder. Indeed, most people with Peter Pan syndrome are in denial. Thus, it is often the family and friends who are the first to take charge of the treatment. In order to prevent a more severe manifestation of the disorder, family members can set limits (such as restricting distractions) and induce gradual responsibility, for example by guiding them initially on adult concepts (finding a job, paying bills) so that they can gradually become independent.
In psychotherapy, the primary goal will be to identify the origin and understand the causes of the disorder in order to evolve towards a behavior more adapted to society, but also in some cases to decrease the suffering linked to anxiety and depressive disorders. It is also a question of learning to project oneself into the future and to face one’s mortality.
However, the problem of recognition of the disorder by the health authorities makes it more difficult to authenticate and manage the Peter Pan syndrome. There are other syndromes related to the Peter Pan story that are not well recognized, such as Wendy’s complex, which describes a mother who is dependent on her children, or Tinkerbell syndrome, which describes an authoritarian, manipulative, and possessive tendency in women.
Finally, the Peter Pan syndrome can be described as an adult’s fear of facing responsibilities and entering into relationships with other people. Thus, they live in a different reality, one that is unique to themselves and that is similar to childhood. However, this creates a behavioral gap that can lead to genuine and more or less significant suffering. Here, it is not a matter of putting a label on an immature adult but of recognizing a real disorder in order to be able to take care of it quickly and efficiently.