They Don’t Wanna Grow Up: Demystifying the Man-Child and His Missing Maturity

By Hannah RileyLast Updated Nov 12, 2020 4:57:34 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Walt Disney Studios/IMDb; David H. Wells/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

Ahh, another grueling day at work. Drained and demoralized, you slither through the door and sink down onto the couch right next to your boyfriend — Has he been playing Halo all day? Is that a scale model of Mt. Everest made of Hot Pockets wrappers on the coffee table? — intending to tell him about your workday dilemmas. He appears to be listening as you explain Gerald in accounting's massive blunder. But that’s when you notice — a glint in his eyes, a smirk crawling across his face. In a flash, he's yelling "Pillow fight!" and delivering a deluge of blows using your grandmother's hand-embroidered cushion as his weapon of choice. You decide you'd rather camp out in your cubicle, use your desk as a tent and subsist on those stale graham crackers in the breakroom than deal with another night of this.

If this relationship horror story hit a little too close to home, you might have a man-child in your midst. While they may not act like literal children, speaking only in a language of food fights and whining, it can seem like the very essence of their being is permeated by a childlike immaturity, a perpetual Peter Pan-ness that renders them unreliable and incapable of the level of seriousness you'd expect for their age. Dealing with one leaves you clutching your last razor-thin shred of patience and wondering where the guy's babysitter ran off to. So what should you do to maintain your sanity if you encounter a man-child or — gulp — live with one? We’ve got the lowdown.

What Exactly Is a Man-Child, Anyway?

The first step in detecting a man-child? Defining the man-child. He’s a lot what he sounds like — a grown man who has childlike (read: immature) qualities. But it goes deeper than that.

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A man-child typically doesn’t take responsibility for his actions, looking instead for someone or something else to blame (how else will he victimize himself?). A man-child makes grandiose plans (or regular plans that he thinks he deserves extra praise for, like, you know, finding a job) but never follows through on them. A man-child expects you to function not only as his partner but also his parent, paying for his drinks, picking up after him and cooking for him. Instead of growing up and facing the music — all the adult responsibilities that come along with getting older — a man-child essentially chooses to live an endless boyhood (or might never have been given the proper tools to mature into a healthy adult in the first place).

Men-children are defined by this immaturity, meaning they do or say things that aren’t appropriate for their age but for someone much younger. Their interests might include those you’d expect of a teenager, and their senses of humor might be equally juvenile. While it’s perfectly fine to have these traits, the difference is that the man-child never steps up or advances beyond them; he’s never able to act mature or form relationships that require him to contribute his fair share of support in any form. If humans were hairstyles, the man-child would be a confused mullet: party in the front and party in the back. Where most of us put on our big-person pants and navigate the harsh realities of adulthood, a man-child indulges in a "me first" or "take, take, take" mentality while paying no attention to the consequences.

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The immaturity extends to their emotions, too, which they have trouble processing and moderating. They don’t know how to handle other people’s feelings (or even discussions of them) beyond a surface-level acknowledgement or a "That’s rough, buddy" said with the hopes that the conversation will head in a new direction — preferably back to his favorite topic: him. A man-child’s only frame of reference is himself, and he doesn’t think or care much about how his actions affect other people. As far as he’s concerned, he can do no harm. But oh, is he ever wrong.

What Makes a Man-Child? The Carl Jung-Peter Pan Connection

What turns a seemingly normal boy into a petulant, irresponsible, adult-sized boy? While there’s no formal condition — no Man-Child Disorder — for psychiatrists to diagnose, there’s a cluster of behaviors and similarities prevalent enough among men-children that organizations and publications like Psychology Today have taken notice of the ubiquity. But they weren’t the first to shine a light on the man-child.

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Photo Courtesy: Walt Disney Studios/IMDb; Bettmann/Getty Images

Interestingly, the concept dates back over 2,000 years to a narrative epic by Roman poet Ovid titled "Metamorphoses." In the work, a childlike god is referred to as "puer aeternus," which is Latin for "eternal boy," because he avoids commitment and puts his personal freedoms above all else, especially other people’s boundaries. And, of course, there’s everyone’s favorite forever-boy, Peter Pan, whose youthful innocence and penchant for escapism might’ve been charming and irresistible to Wendy at 12 — but ask her again at 35 as she’s angrily eyeing the dirty green tights strewn around her apartment.

For almost as long as these mythical men-boys have existed in our cultural consciousness, people have been trying to explain why. If we can get to the root, of course, we might have a better chance of figuring out how to fix things or how to prevent boys from becoming men-children in the first place. Or we might be able to realize earlier on when it’s time for us to head for the hills. Carl Jung, that famous founder of analytical psychology, was one of the first to attempt to answer why some men never seem to grow up. His conclusion? That an unhealthy attachment to his parents can prevent a boy from successfully navigating the appropriate stages of psychological development as he becomes a man. Decades later, psychoanalyst Dr. Dan Kiley even gave the phenomenon an incredibly fitting name: Peter Pan Syndrome.

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Was Jung right in his assessment? Sort of. According to research from the University of Granada and Georgetown University, it’s likely a combination of factors. Men-children may fear loneliness, choosing instead to seek out people who’ll take care of them. They may have anxiety about taking on the challenges and responsibilities of adulthood and escape these worries by finding a partner who bears them instead. It’s also possible that overprotective "helicopter" parents who micromanage every detail of their children’s lives — and fail to let kids solve their own problems — may prevent those children from learning basic life skills. The result is a dependent man-child. A mental health diagnosis such as a personality disorder may even be at the root. But while it’s interesting to understand the why, it may be more helpful to understand the whats — both what to look for and what to do about...him.

Immature Encounters: Identifying the Wild Man-Child

Every day, you venture out into the world where men-children may be lurking. Or, every night, you might return home to one in your house. While the man-child passing you in the grocery aisle with his piled-high cart of fruit snacks and Mountain Dew might not present much of a threat, managing life with a man-child on a long-term basis can get frustrating, overwhelming and exhausting. It can start to impact your mental health. That’s why it’s so important to recognize when you might be dealing with one, especially in a romantic relationship: You can then make a more informed decision about how you’ll handle things, particularly if the man-child is negatively affecting your day-to-day existence.

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First, take stock of how you feel around your man in question. Are you irritated because you’re constantly picking up his dirty clothes and doing all the chores at home? Do you feel consistent disappointment after he promises to do something or change but fails? On most days, do you feel like you’re a buzzkill who’s constantly nagging him? Does it seem like you’re talking at him, not with him, and he’s not really listening? Or do most of your serious conversations end with a focus on his juvenile response, not a resolution?

Next, turn your attention to his actions and overall persona. Does talking to him feel like trying to communicate with someone in junior high? Does he resort to ad-hominem attacks and insult you during arguments or lie to avoid blame for something? When you’re talking with him, does he interrupt impulsively or change the subject on a whim? Does it seem like he never acknowledges or learns from his mistakes or that you’re always having to "save" him and pick up the pieces? Is he more interested in drinking with friends or playing video games than he is about planning for your future together?

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If you answered "yes" to most or all of these questions, you’re undoubtedly living with a man-child. And it’s time to answer one more question: What should you do about this?

Putting on the Kid Gloves: Dealing With Your Man-Child

Wrangling a man-child can feel like one of those races where you have to carry the egg on the spoon, keeping it from breaking open (or throwing an adult tantrum). Except this time it’s an egg that loves potty humor and spills a jumble of dirty socks and scratch tickets when it cracks. And it can make your whole life feel a lot less enjoyable.

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It’s always important to remember that you don’t have to deal with a man-child forever, particularly if you’re in a relationship and things don’t improve over time. It’s not your job to change him. But if you're committed to the partnership and are willing to make some attempts to work things out, you have several options to try before you potentially call it quits. Ultimately, "the way out of this dynamic involves change from both parties," notes clinical psychologist Dr. Samantha Rodman, and it’s okay if that change starts with you.

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Dealing with a man-child can involve a lot of compromising, and it helps to determine specific areas where you want to see the most change. This lets you allow a few things to slide while you focus on setting boundaries in other, more essential-to-you areas. If you’re used to rescuing him from situations — say, smoothing things over when he forgets Dad’s birthday — you’ll need to steel yourself and stop. Let him experience the consequences of his actions, and practice standing up for yourself. Dr. Rodman also notes that you’ll want to work on "find[ing] fulfillment in something outside of caring for [your] home and family," whether that involves enjoying some self-care, nurturing friendships, volunteering or trying a combination of activities that take the focus off the man-child.

For a better chance at improving the dynamic in your partnership, consider individual counseling for yourself, particularly if the man-child isn’t ready to try couples counseling yet. But engaging in both — individual therapy for you and couples for you and your partner — is ideal. Talking to a therapist can help you find new ways of viewing your interactions with your man-child, and you’ll learn techniques to change that keep both of you from feeling alienated and disappointed during this process. "There is always the potential for positive change if both (or even just one) parties are motivated," Dr. Rodman concludes, and keeping that in mind can be a great motivator in your early days spent charting the rough waters of man-childishness.

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When the Man-Child Call Is Coming From Inside the House...

What happens if you encounter a dreaded man-child when you look in the mirror? If you’re finding yourself thinking, "Wait, this sounds like me," you deserve some recognition for this a-ha moment. One of the first steps in combating man-childism is realizing you have a problem — and having enough self-awareness to start to correct it.

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It’s likely that the behaviors qualifying you as a man-child have been your constant companions since childhood, so don’t expect to change overnight. Start small by taking more responsibility and doing what you say you’ll do. Need to pick your friend up from a doctor’s appointment? Make the effort to get there on time, maybe even a little early, instead of playing Xbox an hour past the scheduled pickup. Actively listen when someone’s talking to you. If they’re explaining you hurt them in some way, apologize without tacking on excuses — no "but, but" here. Is there something your partner’s always asking you to do, like clean up those crusty cereal bowls luxuriating around the living room? Take care of it without them asking first.

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It can also be immensely beneficial to get an outside perspective, one from someone who’s trained to help people navigate their behaviors and get to the root causes to begin dismantling them. Yes, it’s a great idea to talk to a therapist, even if it might feel a little intimidating. You’re sure to encounter some obstacles in this journey, and it’s important to have someone help you work through them, not turn back at the slightest sign of discomfort — however tempting that sounds. They’ll assist you in getting a handle on your emotional maturity and learning how to act with integrity, two essentials for banishing your man-childishness to Neverland once and for all.

When you can demonstrate real change, life will get better. Your relationships will improve, and you’ll enjoy the special brand of satisfaction that comes only from meeting your responsibilities head-on. You’ll feel confident and more secure in who you are. And that butt imprint in your couch cushion may even start to fade away. Ahh, the sweet signs of adulthood, here at last.

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