Peter Pan Syndrome

Two popular psychology books that have been on the self-help market for several years are The Peter Pan Syndrome and The Wendy Dilemma, both by Dr. Dan Kiley. While I am not a total believer in the concepts presented by the author, I think the personality problems and resulting social problems described in these two books are of interest.

The Peter Pan Syndrome (PPS) describes men, who are childlike in their relationships, their ability to handle responsibilities, and their pursuit of pleasure. “He’s a man because of his age; a child because of his acts. The man wants your love, the child your pity. The man yearns to be close, the child is afraid to be touched. If you look past his pride, you’ll see his vulnerability. If you defy his boldness, you’ll feel his fear” (p.3).

Victims of PPS appear to be emotionally stunted at an adolescent level. Their impulses take priority over any internalized sense of right and wrong. They cope with their problems by engaging in a great deal of primitive denial, e.g. “If I don’t think about it, the problem will disappear.” This attitude frequently leads to alcohol and drug abuse, since getting high makes their problems disappear, at least as long as they are high. They excel at blaming others for their shortcomings, and are often extremely sensitive to rejection from others. The PPS sufferer desperately needs to belong, as he feels very, very lonely. There seems to be an immense vacuum in his life unless he is around people, preferably the center of attention.

The work record of a PPS client usually reveals that as a young man he tended to have employment hassles because he procrastinated in taking care of responsibilities. The younger PPS seems to have little internalized controls which would aid him in initiating responsible activities on his own, before outside pressure from parents or employers was brought to bear on him. “I don’t’ care” seems to be his philosophy on life. The older PPS victim goes to the opposite extreme. He seems to resemble, in many aspects, the Type A personality. He tends to be a workaholic with very unrealistic expectations of himself, his employer, and his fellow workers. Dr. Kiley believes that guilt is pressuring the older PPS to compensate for his careless procrastination of earlier years. I believe that, as he gets older, the PPS sufferer develops this constant desire to be doing something as a coping mechanism for dealing with the hollow emptiness of his life. Alcohol and drugs are other unhealthy coping mechanisms used to fill up that psychological emptiness.

Emotions are the most difficult areas for a PPS client. “Older victims say they love or care for you, but can’t seem to remember to express their love. Ironically, although they started out as extremely sensitive children, these men often appear to be self-centered to the point of cruelty” (p. 9). At times they appear warm and caring; however, these sentiments can be rapidly replaced with cold indifference, a change that greatly confuses the women with whom they are involved. Dr. Kiley refers to the emotional numbness of the PPS sufferer, stating that they have lost touch with their emotions and simply do not know what they feel.

The typical PPS victim experienced a great deal of permissiveness in his upbringing. This led to a lack of self-discipline, demonstrated by laziness and irresponsibility, along with the inability to learn how to control their emotions. “They do not know the basics of protecting themselves from life’s disappointments. As a result, their feelings get hurt easily” (p. 124). Since they don’t know how to protect their feelings from getting hurt, the PPS client has learned to withdraw from emotional areas. They avoid feelings, manifesting an “I don’t care” attitude.

Because of problems stemming back to disturbed relationships with their mother, PPS victims have a great deal of difficulty relating to women. They strive to prove their male potency, manifesting it in “macho” and chauvinistic talk and attitudes. They often will collect notches on their bedposts, having sexual intercourse with any and every available woman. They feel potent because of their power to seduce women with their superficially good social manners, which includes an ability to put out an almost irresistible line of romantic blarney. One PPS sufferer I know in his early 40’s stated that he would like to go back and apologize to the first ten women he had had sex with and give them another sample, as his sexual prowess had improved so much with time and countless experiences.

The PPS client has a long and repeated history of taking his lovers for granted. He feels that the love of a mate should be like the love of a mother – unconditionally positive. A wife or lover, in his eyes, is never supposed to expect more of him than he chooses to give at the time he chooses to give it. “He doesn’t understand that adult love is conditional, it involves give and take. Rather he is the taker and his wife or lover is the giver. If a woman challenges this inequity, she is seen as a bitch who doesn’t know how good she has it” (p. 125). He is very concerned about the opinions of others, especially males, and will run out to do a good deed for others without even telling his mate where he is going. He seems to rescue everyone else but usually stands motionless when his mate needs help.

When reality is pushed upon him hard enough so the emotional insulation or denial is broken through, the PPS sufferer will often call upon rage to intimidate whoever is pushing reality upon him. This anger keeps people away from the PPS sufferer’s fragile self-esteem. Unfortunately, it also keeps love, concern, and warmth away. “Rage is the wall that keeps the PPS victim isolated from close contact with others” (p. 131).

PPS sufferers can benefit from psychotherapy, which helps them take a long, hard look at themselves and their relationships with others. Dr. Kiley, in the book, gives suggestions to help the mates, parents, friends, as well as the victims themselves. He also wrote a second book, called The Wendy Dilemma, which describes the women who tend to get involved with Peter Pan characters. At the end of The Peter Pan Syndrome is an excellent annotated bibliography describing several good self-help psychology books, many of which I recommend to the clients in my practice.

Beaumont Psychological Services, P.C.
3560 Delaware, Suite 107
Beaumont, Texas 77706
Fax: 409-898-3153