Explained: What is Peter Pan syndrome and how does one treat it?

Recently a 23-year-old man was granted bail by a Mumbai civil court after being accused of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl, a minor. He was granted bail based on the special Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act as he suffers from Peter Pan Syndrome. The accused was granted bail on a bond of Rs 25,000 on the condition of furnishing sureties. The court also put several conditions, including making any inducement or promises to any person acquainted with facts of the case or commit a similar offence, reported The Times of India.

Advocate Sunil Pandey stated that the victim's family knew about the relationship and did not like it "due to the boy's illness and poor background and also had a grudge against his family members."

He also added that the victim knew what she was doing and got into the relationship voluntarily.

And while this statement was opposed, according to a PTI report, the court went ahead and granted the accused bail. Special Judge SC Jadhav also said that detaining him will serve no purpose as the probe into the matter is completed and nothing has to be recovered from him.

So what exactly is Peter Pan Syndrome? Let's find out.

"Peter Pan syndrome is not technically a diagnosis, it's a pop psychology term," says Ritika Aggarwal, Consultant Psychologist, Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre. "It is used to describe any adult male or female, who are not socially mature. While it can affect anyone without regard of gender, race, culture, but it is more common among males."

Pop psychology or popular psychology is an attempt to present psychological ideas to a general audience. It is regarded as pseudoscience and psychobabble by psychologists but embraced by the people.

This syndrome is not recognised as a mental illness. It bears no mention in the International Classification of Diseases 11th Revision (ICD 11) which is the global standard for diagnostic health information by the World Health Organisation. It is not recognised by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM 5). These are the two books that psychiatrists use as a basis to recognise if something is a mental health disorder.

This term was first used by Dr Dan Kiley was a psychotherapist in one of his books named The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up. Release in 1983, the book became very popular and it "just kind of stuck," says Aggarwal. The book talks about how men have trouble dealing with responsibility and can behave childishly. It also seeks to help them reach emotional maturity.

In 1984, Kiley released another book titled Wendy Dilemma: When Women Stop Mothering Their Men. It talks about how some women can perpetuate the Peter Pan syndrome by taking over responsibilities to make up for the man who isn't doing them.

How do you know you have this syndrome?

Aggarwal lists out a few traits someone with Peter Pan Syndrome might exhibit:

  • They avoid responsibilities
  • They act childish and never want to grow up
  • They are unreliable
  • Cannot deal with stressful situations
  • Blaming others for their situations
  • Finding excuses to get out of a situation
  • Not making any effort
  • Expecting other people to look after them

But, Aggarwal warns that not everyone who exhibits some of these traits are necessarily suffering from this syndrome, there might be other underlining issues as well.

So how does one treat this?

Since it is not classified as a mental disorder and there is not enough research done on this syndrome, treating it can be tough. Aggarwal said "If we had to assume in terms of what you would do to treat it, it would be therapy. Looking at what are the behaviours that are causing an issue."

"So for example, if a person says I just find it really hard to grow up or I don't want to grow up," she said "then maybe address the fears that are stopping them. I'm seeing the why behind them not being able to do something and working on that, working towards improving relationships and work pattern."

However, she does caution that some of the above-mentioned traits can be signs of a different mental health illness like depression. So if the family notices these signs and forces the person to do things, that can have adverse effects. "It is really a fine balance," Aggarwal said.

"How to best help them will be based on a more symptomatic approach rather than a generalised symptom-based approach."

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