In Peter Pan, the famous Scottish novel, Peter Pan comes from the Never-Never Land where children never grow up. In reality, people with Peter Pan syndrome (PPS) can and do become adults, however, they resist taking on the responsibilities of adulthood and adopting norms in their cultures that are associated with growing older. Those do not want or feel unable to grow up, feel uncomfortable to take on adult responsibilities, or dress up and enjoy themselves as teenagers even though they are already in their thirties may be considered as suffering from PPS. It is suggested a growing number of adults who are presenting emotionally immature behaviours in western society (University of Granada, 2007), although PPS is not currently considered as a mental health disorder, it is a massive mental health issue to be addressed.
Who Can Suffer?
PPS affects those with an adult’s body but a child’s mind, they are, intentionally or unintentionally, having no motivation to stop being children and start being parents. Experts suggested that an overprotective parenting style favours the development of PPS. It is because the over protection from parents can lead to children’s excessive dependency, so these children fail to develop basic but essential skills for adulthood. Both genders can be suffering from PPS, but it happens more often in males.
How to Spot?
Some features of PPS can be observed in daily life.
- Unstable Relationships:
Scaring of loneliness, people with PPS are usually trying to surround themselves with those be able to meet their needs. They continuously search for people caring for them, while some of them constantly change partners and look for new ones if this relationship starts asking for more commitment and responsibility. Therefore, they may tend to develop relationships with younger partners who request less commitment and plans for the future.
Adulthood can be very challenging to those with PPS. Feeling doubt and anxious about your ability to get a job, earn your livelihood, or achieve other measures of being successful is normal. However, those with PPS feel excessively anxious about the issues in adulthood. As a result, they may choose to avoid tasks in adulthood by claiming different excuses. Unfortunately people with PPS usually do not aware that their excuses are part of the problem.
- Mental Health Diagnosis:
Some studies suggest that individuals with PPS may trigger mental health diagnoses such as personality disorders, anxiety disorder, and depression. It is also associated with other psychological issues such as vocational and relationship issues.
Long Term Effect without Proper Treatments
PPS brings some long term effects if it is not properly treated.
Unemployment or Underemployment: The fear of commitment makes them refuse to look for a job or stay in a stable job position. In some cases, they would rather quit their job once
it requests more commitment. Besides, the high level of anxiety lead to misbehaviours and malfunctioning in workplace, so people with PPS are easily getting discharged. In some cases, people with PPS might get married and have children, however, they spend most of their time playing computer games while their partner works, cleans, and tends to the children.
Financial Dependency: People with PPS are always trying to surround themselves with people with those be able to meet their needs, they may be able to rely on others to take care of financial needs without contributing something of value in return. In worse cases, people’s kindness may somehow reinforce their financial dependency.
Treatment Options – Non-Therapy
Several ways can be done to treat PPS without a therapist. These are economic ways to treat PPS since they do not request large amounts of cost. However, they will be largely depending on your own effort to deliver the treatment for yourself:
- Acknowledgment of Roles:
The role of children is always be emphasized in whose minds with PPS, meanwhile, other roles in them are usually folded. Thus, to acknowledge different roles in one’s life is the first step to move forward.
- Enhancement of Self-Awareness:
Clients with PPS, and sometimes their parents or partners, are unaware of the effect of PPS. Therefore, to become more self-aware of their behaviours is a good start for both parties to handle PPS. Practically speaking, a proper review and reflection of different stages in their lives is a helpful tool to develop self-awareness.
- Development of Sense of Responsibility:
The unpleasant feeling of growth may lead to the avoidance of taking on responsibilities and commitments. Having the lack of chances to learn from these experiences, people with PPS are unable to develop essential skills for adulthood. Hence, to develop their sense of responsibility is a way to treat PPS. For those with PPS, it is suggested to start with identifying their responsibility in any single daily incident in life by asking: What makes it happen and how much do you contribute to it? This action helps in developing a healthier attributional style which eventually promotes the sense of responsibility for those with PPS.
Treatment Options – Therapy
Apart from the non-therapy options, personal therapy also help those with PPS. Mental health professionals can lead and support clients in the therapy to overcome PPS. Taking a therapy would cost them money, but it would be worthy for making a change in their lives. With patience and effort, clients can move forward to a brighter adulthood and lasting relationships.
- Family Therapy/ Couples Therapy: For those feeling uncomfortable growing up may cause harm to the people around them, most likely, their parents or partners. In some cases of PPS, their parents may using their retirement savings to continuously support their livelihood. The PPS may also lead the exposure of the partners in exhaustion and overwhelming by taking on all responsibilities in daily life. In such cases, family therapy or couples therapy help these families understanding the current situation and their dynamic between family members. They can work together to move forward to healthier and more balanced relationships.
- Individual Therapy: In the context of individual therapy, a therapist helps a client exploring his/her resistance to grow up, addressing any underlying factor such as traumatic or attachment issues, and develop a plan together for transforming the client into a healthier condition of adulthood. A good therapist can break the plan into little and manageable steps for clients so that they would be able to steadily improve their condition. And certainly the process take some time to go through.
The Therapist’s Approach
With different training backgrounds, therapists treat PPS differently with their own approaches such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and psychodynamic psychotherapy.
- Cognitive-behavioural Therapy: CBT is a commonly adopted and well-researched approach to psychotherapy. It emphasizes on the associations between environment, emotions, thoughts, behaviours, and physical reactions. Before developing an appropriate behavioural strategy and plan for clients to handle their PPS, a CBT-oriented therapist will explore these associations with different inquiry techniques such as journaling, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, and thought record. Therefore, clients under a CBT treatment may be assigned some exercises or homework after the therapy sessions, they are required to complete assigned tasks before the next session in order to review their progress with therapists. Additionally, some therapist nowadays may integrate mindfulness practice into CBT treatment, clients are encouraged to spend moments for meditation every day to develop their awareness of his/her thoughts and emotions deep inside.
- Psychodynamic Psychotherapy: The psychodynamic psychotherapy is a widely adopted approach to psychotherapy since Freud found psychoanalysis in the 1900s. This approach focuses on the unconscious drives and their association with clients’ behaviours – what is actually motivating their syndrome? Traumatic experiences, inappropriate psycho-sexual development, and unhealthy attachment can be significant factors causing clients’ PPS. With certain awareness of roots of the problems, clients are able to make their choices to construct a better lifestyle. Some psychodynamic-oriented therapists may inform their clinical practice to creative arts. They explore clients’ psychic world with any pieces of artwork the client created. Through the process of enquiring clients’ artwork, therapists will uncover the intrapsychic conflicts and discover better ways for clients’ lives.
University of Granada. “Overprotecting parents can lead children to develop ‘Peter Pan Syndrome’.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 May 2007. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070501112023.htm
Mr. Thomas has been developing his expertise in psychodynamic approach (Jungian-oriented) to expressive arts therapy, mental health counselling and assessment, with an emphasis on children, adolescents, and young adults. He offers counselling services in Cantonese, English, and Mandarin. Mr. CHAN is a full member of the Division of Counselling Psychology, Hong Kong Psychological Society (HKPS), a registered member of the Australian Counselling Association (ACA), and a clinical member at Hong Kong Institute of Analytical Psychology, a developing group of International Association of Analytical Psychology (IAAP).
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