case reports

Some People Have an Actual Phobia of Growing Up

This children's book illustration shows a scene from the Peter Pan book by J.M. Barrie, published in 1911.
Photo: Blue Lantern Studio/Corbis

No one really wants to grow up. It’s such a common sentiment that it’s plastered all over our popular culture, from Toys R Us commercials to Ben Folds lyrics. The idea of embracing the adult world’s myriad responsibilities simply isn’t fun. Most people get over it, though. A bizarre, tragic exception is gerascophobia, or the fear of growing up — a very rare condition. A recent article in Case Reports in Psychiatry highlights one such case, and it’s rather intense. 

In the paper (h/t LiveScience, by the way), the authors, led by Laurencia Perales-Blum of Mexico’s Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León, report on a 14-year-old boy they treated “whose problem started two and a half years ago due to an excessive fear of growing.”

Things spun a bit out of control:

He does not eat much because according to his own research food contains nutrients needed for physical development; in addition, he adopted a stooped posture to hide his height and began to distort his voice, using lower volume and higher pitch than usual, and he has also been searching the Internet to learn how not to ejaculate. He is greatly concerned with the development of secondary sexual characteristics. Every time he notices a physical change that indicates that he is growing, he feels fear and anxiety, to the point that has considered undergoing multiple surgeries to hide it. If people tell him that he is taller or older, he becomes extremely upset and cries. Due to the restriction in food intake, he has a weight loss of more than 12kg. He is currently in the 25th percentile, according to the BMI for his age; however, he does not perceive any alterations in body image. 

It’s a pretty heartbreaking read; long before the boy’s gerascophobia had manifested itself, he’d dealt with all sorts of other stuff, including sexual abuse. Luckily, by the end of the article the researchers report some success in treating the condition. 

Usually it’s difficult for people to understand mental illness in a visceral way. If you’re not severely depressed or schizophrenic, you can’t really understand what it’s like to lack the wherewithal to get out of bed or to be plagued by taunting voices. In this case, though, the gap doesn’t seem quite as wide. It’s not hard to remember what it was like being an awkward, moody adolescent concerned about all the changes taking place in your body. Imagine if all that psychological static manifested itself as a physical refusal to grow up. It would be brutal.

Some People Have an Actual Phobia of Growing Up