Peter Pan Syndrome Describes Adults Who Struggle to Accept Adult Responsibilities

As times change, could we see a rise in Peter Pan Syndrome? Professor Melek Kalkan shares insights on new tools developed to diagnose this complex disorder.

By Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi
Jun 21, 2024 1:00 PMJun 27, 2024 4:05 PM
shadow puppet of peter pan and wendy and tinkerbell
(Credit: WaffelBoo/Shutterstock)


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In 1902, a Scottish novelist introduced a character who quickly became iconic. Peter Pan was a boy who could fly. He zipped between reality and an imaginary world, sometimes taking other children with him.

Peter Pan was eternally a boy. He would never grow up, nor did he want to mature. Growing up would mean a loss of adventure and the burden of responsibility.

Peter Pan Syndrome is now used to describe adults who struggle with accepting the responsibilities that come with adulthood. Although it’s not a formal diagnosis, social scientists have developed ways to measure the syndrome so clinicians can better recognize and address it. 

The Responsibilities of Emerging Adulthood

The notion of what it means to be an adolescent is a fairly fluid concept that has changed over time and across cultures. For most of U.S. history, children and adolescents were expected (or forced) to work in some capacity. Following the Second World War, the concept of adolescence as a unique life stage was bolstered by advertisers who saw profit potential in targeting a teen market.

As the concept of adolescence developed, sociologists thought about the transition to adulthood. Many consider the transition from adolescence to adulthood to be complete when a person achieves certain milestones like getting married, having children, or buying a home.

But changing times means a person might have accepted the responsibilities of adulthood, but not hit these specific milestones until later years. A person, for example, could be in a committed relationship but not married. Or they might desire homeownership but feel priced out of their local market. 

What Is Peter Pan Syndrome?

Social scientists say not being able to hit the same milestones as previous generations isn’t a symptom of Peter Pan Syndrome.

Peter Pan Syndrome is about wanting to avoid the commitments that come with adulthood, such as financial independence and self-reliance. In the early 1980s, a psychologist used the term to describe the teenage boys he saw in his clinical practice who were unhappy and unwilling to accept their pending adulthood.

A person with Peter Pan Syndrome can feel disconnected from their peer group as they mature into older adolescence and adulthood. The person experiences loneliness and discontent. The psychologist suggested that part of their unhappiness was due to narcissistic traits. They wanted a career and felt they deserved success, but they were unwilling to work for it or make long-term commitments. Yet, they felt disappointed in their lack of opportunity or accomplishments. 

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Cinderella Syndrome

As social scientists conceptualized about men who would not grow up, they also considered women who intentionally sought dependence on another person, typically a romantic partner. Called the Cinderella Syndrome (or Cinderella Complex), the concept held that a woman was typically unaware that she sought dependence on a male savior.

A woman with Cinderella Syndrome, it was suggested, intentionally acts submissively to avoid conflict, or she ignores existing issues. She may give up on her own aspirations or feel it’s better to support her male partner’s career advancement.

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Developing Diagnostic Tools for Peter Pan Complex

Although mass-market books on the psychology behind Peter Pan Complex have been successful, the social science literature has lacked firm definitions and diagnostic tools.

“When I examined the literature, I saw that the number of studies on Peter Pan Syndrome was quite low. These studies are in the form of literature review, compilations or content analysis rather than quantitative research,” says Melek Kalkan, a professor of psychological counseling and guidance at the University of Ondokuz Mayıs in Samsun, Türkiye (Turkey). 

In a 2021 article in Men and Masculinities, Kalkan and a research team set out to create a reliable tool that could be used for measuring Peter Pan Syndrome.

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Testing for Peter Pan Syndrome

The Peter Pan Syndrome Scale is a 22-item survey in which a person reviews statements and selects their level of agreement using a five-point scale. The survey items were organized into three categories — escape from responsibility, power perception, and never growing up.

Questionnaire items, for example, asked how much a person agreed with statements like Being an adult is scary; I think I am stuck with feeling in-between childhood and adulthood; when a man shares his feelings with a woman, he seems weak.

Scores can range from 22 to 110 points. Although the scale doesn’t have a particular threshold that designates whether a person has Peter Pan Syndrome, a higher score indicates a greater likelihood.

Read More: Should Children Be Screened For Anxiety?

Treating Peter Pan Disorder

Peter Pan Syndrome isn’t a clinical definition and it isn’t listed in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition). But Kalkan and her co-authors see a potential for using the scale in clinical settings to compare scores among others in the patient’s cohort and to better help understand their mindset.

“With such a tool, preventive or therapeutic interventions can be developed to help individuals who struggle with delayed adulthood, avoid responsibilities, and have difficulties establishing and maintaining adult relationships,” she says.

Read More: Calming Kids With Electronics May Affect Emotion Regulation Skills

Article Sources

Our writers at use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

Emilie Lucchesi has written for some of the country's largest newspapers, including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and an MA from DePaul University. She also holds a Ph.D. in communication from the University of Illinois-Chicago with an emphasis on media framing, message construction and stigma communication. Emilie has authored three nonfiction books. Her third, "A Light in the Dark: Surviving More Than Ted Bundy," releases October 3, 2023 from Chicago Review Press and is co-authored with survivor Kathy Kleiner Rubin. Visit her website:

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