The Boy Who Tried To Keep From Growing Up

By Debra Kelly on Thursday, November 5, 2015
Little boy reading a book
“Youth comes but once in a lifetime.” —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Hyperion”

In A Nutshell

Currently, there have only been about three reported cases of a phobia called gerascophobia, the fear of aging. One case study, done on a 14-year-old boy in Mexico, discussed a teenager so petrified of growing up that he stopped eating in the hopes of halting puberty. He cried when someone commented that he looked older or taller, and he contemplated surgery to remove any signs of aging. Thankfully, when treated with therapy and medication, he showed improvement.

The Whole Bushel

Most kids seem to want to grow up in a hurry, while all most adults want to do is go back to a time before bills and car repairs. For some rare individuals, the idea of growing up isn’t just different, it’s terrifying.

It’s rare, but the condition is called gerascophobia, a debilitating fear of aging. There are only a few reported cases, and it’s classified as a fear. As such, it’s thought to originate in the brain like any other fear, and it can escalate over time.

In 2014, the psychiatric journal Case Reports in Psychiatry published a case study on a 14-year-old boy from Mexico who had been diagnosed with gerascophobia that manifested itself in a number of different ways. He ate as little as he possibly could in an attempt to keep his body from growing, resulting in a dangerous weight loss. Every time someone commented on how he looked taller, was growing up fast, or looked older, he suffered from an emotional breakdown and began to cry. His desire not to grow up is so great that he reported thinking about undergoing surgeries to keep himself looking like he’s still a pre-teen. For the moment, he had settled for always slumping in the hopes of making himself look smaller than he was, and talking in a high-pitched voice to hide his changing voice.

Part of what overwhelmed him, it was reported, were the pressures and responsibilities that come with adulthood. The idea of becoming independent, leaving home, getting and holding down a job, and forming solid relationships was just too much. There’s also the idea that with age comes illness with death not far behind.

The report tracks his entire life in an attempt to determine just where the phobia came from. While he had a relatively normal infancy, he suffered from separation anxiety disorder at the age of five, and it was only when he was 12 years old that he was able to talk about the sexual abuse that started when he was around 6.

His treatment was difficult partly because of the response of his parents to his condition. While his father expressed the opinion that he was just doing it all to be annoying, the mother catered to her teenage son, answering questions for him, combing his hair, singing him to sleep, and picking out his clothes.

Psychologists prescribed a series of individual and family therapy sessions, along with doses of a drug called fluoxetine. The patient showed improvement and remains one of only three cases in which a person has been diagnosed with a debilitating phobia related to aging. The article discussed the idea that his condition started just as any other fear does, with a conditioned reaction in the amygdala and other parts of the brain that regulate our reactions to fears.

There’s a similar condition, often called the Dorian Gray syndrome. But this one isn’t defined as a phobia. The Dorian Gray syndrome is characterized by an extreme preoccupation with looking young, pushing the person to try everything from the latest and greatest hair growth medications to wonder drugs, with a motivation that’s based on narcissism rather than fear.

Show Me The Proof

Mic: Your Deep Fear of Growing Up May Be Rooted in Science After All
Case Reports in Psychiatry: Severe Growing-Up Phobia, a Condition Explained in a 14-Year-Old Boy
National Institutes of Health: The “Dorian Gray Syndrome”: psychodynamic need for hair growth restorers and other “fountains of youth.”