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Adults Who Are Locked in Child State

Updated on May 16, 2020
Grahame Milton-Jones profile image

Grahame has used his knowledge of psychotherapy built up over 20 years to provide this valuable advice.

Adult dressing as a child
Adult dressing as a child | Source

Why do some people not want to grow up?

Growing up for many people is an exciting and natural part of life. Some people, however, find the prospect of being an adult difficult or even frightening and go to great lengths to live like a child.

Everyone likes to play and have fun, even pretending to be like a child, but this escape is short lived and we return to our adult mindset.

Though it may seem appealing to live like Peter Pan, reality takes a hold and we take on our adult state and go about our real lives.

What are the 3 different mind states?

Eric Berne developed the concept of Transactional Analysis (TA) in the late 1950s; it set out the idea that people can be in any of the three major mind states at any one time.

The three mind states are:

  • Parent
  • Adult
  • Child

The ability to alternate between the mind states really only takes place when the person is fully mature.

Unfortunately, there are some people that get stuck in the child state even though they may live in an adult body. When this happens, their life can be a disaster because children are not competent at leading adult lives.

These people who never grow up can sometimes be obvious, but some are harder to spot. This “Peter Pan Syndrome” was first defined by Doctor Dan Kiley in 1983 and is a development of the work carried out by Berne.


An example of someone locked in child state would be Michael Jackson

Wishing to remain in child state is not the same as wanting to remain young or longing for youth. Most people like to dress well, sadly sometimes this may include dressing a little too young for their real age. This is not the same; the perpetual child is a mental state that is much more dangerous.

What are the symptoms of someone who is a perpetual child?

  1. They are fun seeking to an almost obsessional level.

  2. They overindulge in drugs, alcohol, parties, unsafe sex, and games.

  3. They search for other perpetual children to share their fun life.

  4. On first meeting them, they are fun, great entertainment and a breath of fresh air as they do not comply with normal adult conventions. As such they can be very attractive and appealing.

  5. They lack commitment.

  6. They seek short term gratification.

  7. They are afraid of loneliness, anxious being evaluated by their peers or boss, intolerant of criticism, consistently changing or looking for new partners.

  8. They blame failure on others, usually parents, teachers or their boss at work.

What adult isn't a child from time to time

It is also important to realise that the perpetual child is a chronic state rather than a short term one. Though dropping into a child state can be induced by someone in parent mode talking to them, it is the person who cannot mature (does not wish to) that has the problem.

The condition should not be confused with Dissociative Identity Disorder (also known as Multiple Personality Disorder). Everyone has the ability to move between the three major mind states at any time and this is quite natural. When the person is locked into one state, it is a major problem.

Where does this problem come from?

A common comment by people who are locked in child state is that they have a fear of becoming and adult, “because adults are boring and judgemental”. Remaining in child state obviously requires a situation which enables them to do so. Unable to maintain a meaningful job means that they require someone else to fund them. Having no goals or achievements, they have to rely on everyone and anyone to help them with the running of their lives. When others help out, it enables the person to remain in child state.

Dropping into child state can be a simple reaction to someone else talking in a parent state. This induced child state does not last for any length of time and is not a problem.

It appears that becoming locked in child state is as a result of emotional trauma, or more likely, the person’s reaction to the trauma. Many people face unimaginable traumas and survive to become fully functional adults. Those that cannot adjust are the ones who may be locked in a particular mind set. The trauma does not have to be massive, it is the way the person deals with it is important.

The key causes appear to be: emotional trauma, being spoiled, parental divorce, over-protective parents and not having increasing responsibility as a child.

The main problems arising from this condition are

  1. They are incompetent at living. Many issues that arise on a daily basis require others to help them.
  2. Relationships are a major problem; initially they may appear to be very attractive but as they have little ability to commit to a relationship, they fail time and time again.
  3. They believe that everyone else has the problem and not themselves.
  4. They constantly fall back on real adults to support them, both financially and emotionally.
  5. They easily attract people but are fun based and shallow so are not good long term prospects.
  6. They are not good at paying bills so often find themselves with debt problems, maybe having to relocate frequently.
  7. They can be very romantic and initially very attentive but this is because playing with their new “friend” is fun. They do not see a destructive side to their behaviour.
  8. These people are not good parent material and they may see their child as a doll to have fun with and not take proper parental responsibility.
  9. They are not good partner material, being demanding but giving little.
  10. Their life revolves around themselves and their short term wishes.

How is this condition treated?

Treatment for the perpetual child is made difficult because they do not accept their condition. As a result, they have very little desire and commitment to any form of treatment, particularly if it is difficult. In their mind, any problems are to be resolved by others providing the funds that they need instead of they, themselves solving their financial problems. They simply want to carry on being the child.

Eventually, they may run out of providers and end up with serious financial problems. It may be that this crisis is the catalyst that forces them to take some responsibility. Usually, however, they run away from their problems and seek new providers that enable them to simply carry on.

The perpetual child syndrome is not officially regarded as a mental illness but with so many cases being reported, it may become one. The condition is quite common though in various degrees. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between people who are just having fun and those who do nothing except compulsively have fun. These people, however, not only cause chaos as they move through life, they are also dangerous to the psychological well-being of those around them.


Peter Pan people can be great fun to be with; they are like a breath of fresh air on a hot day. They are like "butterfly children" however, and their minds flit from one thing to another, constantly seeking fun. The are walking problems, however, because they are incompetent with real life. As such they cannot be trusted with many tasks and common problems, instead seeking adults to help them. Though endearing initially, they cause chaos wherever they go.

Trying to encourage a perpetual child to grow up is like trying to persuade a five year old to give up an ice cream. The resistance is usually enormous, and provided they keep finding adults to look after them, they see no reason to grow up.


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