You received a resume. You liked and invited the candidate for an interview. What a surprise when he or she turned up at the interview with their mom. Do you think it is a joke? Think again. A variation of this scenario happens now and then.
Or what about giving feedback to someone who can’t handle even the slightest mentioning of the fact they made a mistake and start arguing, crying, or getting back to you a day later after they talked it through at home complaining you are unfair?
Or what about entitled individuals who believe that the world revolves around them and they deserve to be treated better than others?
Or what about those who are just unable to make any decisions at all and let others take advantage of them?
Or what about those who will not allow others to make even the smallest decisions and who treat everyone around them as children?
All these things seem to be more and more prevalent in the workplace. Instead of having a team of adults who can collaborate, share successes and failures equally, have constructive arguments, be real partners, you have a bunch of kids who are emotionally immature and who create needless drama.
When you dig deep, you will find a couple of well-described psychological conditions that lead to adults not behaving like adults: Adult Children Syndrome, Peter Pan Syndrome, and Wendy Syndrome. Let’s talk about each of them and then figure out what you can do when you recognize that behavior in the workplace or even in yourself.
Adult Children Syndrome
This syndrome usually applies to adults who had a difficult childhood. They may have lived in dysfunctional families, around alcoholics, or even workaholics. They learned to be little adults before their time. They learned the coping skills to deal with that type of environment. They became a sort of adult very early on. But not quite.
The adult skills they used as kids, don’t work when they became real adults. The coping skills that helped them in the past are holding them back today. They have a myriad of limiting beliefs.
Janet G. Woititz is a counselor, lecturer and, best-selling author of several books that deal with adult children syndrome. She started her work focusing on dysfunctional families where one or both parents were alcoholics and what the impact was on children who grew up in such an environment. This has been expanded to include children of chronically ill, narcissistic, deeply religious, traumatized, depressed, workaholic, anorexic, abusive, or psychotic parents.
In short, children with such backgrounds often grow up into immature adults who don’t know what it means to be an adult. Michael Samsel MA describes behaviors that you can directly translate to problems with their performance in the workplace.
- Overthinking – since they learned to use reason earlier in their lives than other kids, they tend to over-rely on it, which may lead to overthinking and indecision.
- Fear of authority – authority figures of their youth were powerful, in control, and often projected fear.
- Search for certainty – these people are prone to succumb under the organization’s influence, which may offer them certainty and security. It might be a toxic working culture, toxic colleagues, or various cults and gangs.
- Low self-confidence and judging themselves harsh – they often feel somehow guilty for the failure of the family of their youth and have low self-confidence.
- Emotional dependence and wanting to be liked and seeking approval – because they were not loved as children, or at least have that perception, they work extra hard to verify they are likable and instead of doing what they like, they do what will please others, so they are liked in return.
- Inability to say ‘no’ – when they were kids, saying ‘no’ to the tyrant parents would be dangerous, so they play it safe also as adults.
- Excusing offenses of others – since most of the offenses in their childhood came from their caregivers, they learned to excuse others’ bad behavior rather than hold them accountable.
- Extreme conscientiousness and an excessive need to help – they often try to help others and go to great lengths to do so, as that is what they would love to receive. It often leads to self-impoverishment and them not taking care of their own needs.
- Impressionability – they are relatively easy to manipulate. Even if they have strong reasoning skills, they are vulnerable to people with strong charisma. They are unable to listen to their intuition.
- Inability to discuss problems – since they were always blamed for everything, even things they couldn’t be possibly responsible for, they learned to hear any statement you make as a form of criticism and blame. They will never bring up problems in fear of being blamed for them.
- Thinking in extremes – things are either good or bad, black and white, there is no middle. They learned to define everything in two extremes, either their tyrant caregiver was pleased or displeased. They never learned that most things in life are somewhere in between the two extreme values.
- Taking things personally – they learned as kids that any interaction they have with adults is meant to somehow mess with them. They don’t understand that others have their own problems, self-interests, or may say things without any hidden meaning at all.
Helping these individuals is not an easy task, and one you can’t realistically do on your own. A professional help, a therapy, is often needed. You can try to open their eyes to their condition and help them understand their impact on others, that there is nothing inherently wrong with them that can’t be changed, and that if they want to, they can work towards having a much happier life. Going to a professional or joining one of the 12 steps philosophies groups would be a significant first step on their journey.
Peter Pan Syndrome
Peter Pan Syndrome is present in adults who don’t want or feel they are unable to grow up. It is different from the Adult Child Syndrome as the prerequisite is not a difficult childhood. In fact, it can be the opposite. These people are unwilling to take on adult responsibilities. They dwell on their teenage years well into their thirties or forties. They learn to rely on their parents and see no reason to change that.
The leading causes are overprotective or so-called helicopter parents who hover over their kid, so there is no chance of the kid building up the skills needed in adulthood. By being overprotective, always siding with their children, always providing for them, never allowing them to fail or even be independent and on their own, these parents didn’t let them develop the necessary skills and resilience to confront life. It may lead to missed childhood, which leads to a need to catch up on things they didn’t do when being young. It might be a spoiled childhood with parents who never said “no,” thus never building the discipline required for adulthood. It may reflect the need for escaping economic pressure, with high costs of living and high expectations and low salary or no job at all. Running back to childhood seems like a good strategy.
As Humbelina Robles Ortega, a professor at the University of Granada mentions, some of the characteristics of the individuals with Peter Pan Syndrome include:
- Inability to take responsibilities
- Inability to commit
- Inability to get and hold a job
- Inability to keep promises
- Inability to handle conflict (either withdrew or retaliate)
- Unwillingness to do their fair share at home
- Excessive care about the way they look
- Lack of real self-confidence even though they pretend to be overconfident
- Anxious when being evaluated or critiqued as they are not used to criticism and can’t accept that anyone would point out their weaknesses
- Often inflexible, unable to adapt, and scared of loneliness
Peter Pan syndrome is not always a problem and may not interfere too much in the family, work, or social life. However, in some situations, it can become excessive.
It was a psychologist Dan Kiley, who defined the term Peter Pan Syndrome in 1983 in his book The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up. He also talked about Wendy Syndrome to describe women who act like mothers to their partners. Wendy is the woman who stands behind Peter Pan and deals with things he is unable or unwilling to do. Without her, there is no Peter Pan. Just so we are clear, even though the names suggest gender specificity, there is none. Peter Pan Syndrome applies to both genders, and also Wendy character can be both female and male.
The typical Wendy is someone who has the need to be there for others. For example, it manifests with parents who obsess with their kids and do everything for them even when they are old enough to do it themselves. It is someone whose mission in life is to make a life for others as easy as possible and who will take others’ responsibilities and worries as their own.
As summarized on the Psychologypedia, the typical symptoms are:
- Feeling of being essential for others.
- Believe that love is being shown by sacrifice and resignation.
- Assuming a parent role even in relationships, acting like a mother or a father even for their partner.
- Doing everything in their power to prevent others from getting upset.
- Constantly trying to make others happy and seeking to please others.
- Insisting on taking over the responsibilities of other people.
- Keep asking for forgiveness for everything, even things not under their responsibility.
- Having an excessive need for security.
- Being emotionally dependent on the people they care about and not having their own life under control.
The source of Wendy Syndrome can often be also traced to childhood or teen years. Even though some women are born with a strong mothering instinct, it is more likely that they grew up in an environment where they were expected to take care of others. They bring this taking care mentality to adulthood and treat everyone around them as kids. But sometimes it is a pure response to a Peter Pan personality.
The problem with Wendy syndrome is that it can burn the person out. They keep giving and receiving nothing back. And they grow more and more frustrated and unhappy. They live their life by prioritizing others over themselves. They neglect their needs, health, and dreams. They sacrifice their life for someone else who doesn’t value it and who doesn’t even see it.
You may argue that Wendy is definitely someone who doesn’t behave like a child. You are right, but someone with this syndrome doesn’t act like a real responsible partner either. They take on the role of a parent and enable the childish behavior of others around them.
What can you do?
The problem with these syndromes is that those who suffer from them don’t feel like suffering. The World Health Organization doesn’t even consider Peter Pan and Wendy syndromes a psychological disorder, yet they are still a problem. Those who fit the description of these syndromes also don’t feel like they are a part of a problem. They refuse to take responsibility and ownership of their own lives. It requires a holistic approach when dealing with Peter Pan’s. Finding who their Wendy is and addressing both is the only way to break the cycle.
When dealing with these syndromes in family settings, couples counseling can help both sides understand the dynamic and find a way out. Both sides need to work towards a more balanced and healthy relationship.
In the workplace setting, it is more on individual counseling. A therapist or a life coach can help the individual to understand their reluctance to grow up and come up with a plan going forward. It is a long process that starts with recognizing the problem, its root cause, and the first small steps.
1. Try to understand them and what drives their behavior – if you identify consistent behavior that fits some of the categories mentioned above, it is worthwhile to try to understand the “why.” Sometimes, it is only about education. The person can be a well-functioning adult who needs a bit of guidance. Maybe they don’t genuinely suffer from these syndromes deep down, but no one ever told them what the appropriate adult response in a given situation is. Providing a bit of coaching and mentoring may help them to slowly get on the right path.
2. Stop enabling their behavior – the one thing you can do in cases of Peter Pan and Wendy syndromes is to stop enabling them. People with these two syndromes usually don’t have any deep emotional scars. They behave this way simply because they can. No one ever pushed back on them and told them that their behavior is not acceptable. These two syndromes can’t live without each other. If you have on your team someone with Peter Pan syndrome, make sure you don’t start playing the role of Wendy. If you have a Wendy on your team, don’t provide him or her the opportunities to act on their instincts and don’t become Peter Pan and make sure other people on the team don’t enable them either.
3. Help them understand there is a problem – you do this best by explaining in a non-threatening way the impact their behavior has on you and those around them. In most cases, they will eventually realize that there might be a bit of truth in what you say, though be prepared for the initial denial. It may help to point out what options there are and that they own their future. It is about opening their eyes to a potentially bright future that they can reach if they decide to give it a go.
4. Remove distractions from their life – Things like social media, television, computer games, and similar distractions are great enablers of irresponsible behavior. Instead of dealing with real-life problems, the Peter Pans of the world escape to their virtual reality. By limiting the number of distractions, you can gradually turn their attention to those things that should matter to them as adults.
5. Add responsibilities to their life – The problem often is a lack of self-confidence and discipline. You might be able to help them build this self-confidence and discipline in setting up scenarios that require solving real-world problems on their own. You don’t need to ask them to build a house, but making it very clear that some of the responsibilities that impact others are on their shoulders and need to be handled by them is an excellent first step. By explaining the natural consequences of these responsibilities being dropped, and the impact on those around them, you can help build discipline. Just to make sure you are not the one who keeps reminding them that something needs to be done as that is precisely the enabling behavior. If you keep showing that you feel responsible for the situation, they won’t see a reason to step up.
6. Help them get help – A big step for them is to realize they have a problem. If that happens, you can help them find a good support group, for example, one based on the 12 step philosophy used to treat addictions and encourage them to participate.
Just talking about these syndromes can be an eye-opening moment for many people. It can trigger those who already feel that something is not right but can’t identify what is bothering them. In these cases, they made the first step towards real adulthood. However, not everyone gets there quickly. Ultimately you need to be realistic and understand that you can’t change someone who doesn’t want to change.
What are your thoughts on the topic? Do you know someone with these syndromes or have you identified yourself with it? How do you react when faced with people like that? And how do you help them to become more productive, happy, and satisfied with life?
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