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Magical Thinking in Children


Definition: Magical thinking refers to a psychological process in which people associate an action or event with another action or event that is completely unrelated. Psychologists sometimes connect folklore traditions and superstitions to magical thinking because they point to actions (step on a crack) that people believe impact an outcome (break your mother’s back) that are in no way influenced by the first event. In adults, magical thinking is also sometimes associated with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Children begin to practice magical thinking during the toddler years. It may lead some children to believe that a certain action they take will influence the world around them. For instance, a child may think that food only tastes "good" if she eats it with a pink spoon or that holding tight to his lovey will keep the monsters away at bedtime.

Since children at this stage of development are egocentric, they already believe that their actions directly influence events around them. Magical thinking may intensify this sensation. Your child may believe, for instance, that spinning in circles will make her favorite show come on because she did it once…and the show came on.

Magical thinking may also lead toddlers to avoid certain situations or be resistant to new routines. If your otherwise toilet trained toddler, for instance, refuses to use the potty at day care, you might look for indications that she has associated the potty at school with something unpleasant (even thought there is no rational connection between the two). It can be very difficult to break these associations in your child’s mind since she is not actually able to think about the situation rationally. You may, therefore, need to just wait it out until your child forgets the "rule" she associated between the two, or you can look for ways to compromise, offering a variable that doesn’t have to fit the magical rule she’s created in her mind (such as brining the potty from home to use at day care).

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