Signs of Magical Thinking in Small Children

Young girl playing with fork
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Magical thinking in children or adults refers to a psychological process in which one links an action or event to another entirely unrelated action or event. Psychologists sometimes connect folklore and superstitions to magical thinking because these traditions suggest that the actions people take lead to certain outcomes, even if that outcome is in no way influenced by the first event. The saying "step on a crack, break your mother's back" is a prime example of this sort of thinking.

Magical Thinking Is a Normal Developmental Stage

While magical thinking is widely considered normal in children. In adults, magical thinking is sometimes associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Children begin to practice magical thinking during the toddler years. This kind of thinking 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 her blanket 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 perception. Your child may think, for instance, that spinning in circles will make his favorite television show come on because when he spun in circles once before the show did come on.


Magical thinking may also lead toddlers to avoid certain situations or resist new routines. If your otherwise toilet-trained toddler, for instance, refuses to use the potty at daycare, you might look for indications that she has associated the potty at school with something unpleasant, even though 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 imagined between the two or until you can look for ways to compromise.

Compromises should offer a variable that doesn’t have to fit the magical rule the child has created in their mind, such as bringing the potty from home to use at daycare.

Countering the Thinking

If your preschool-aged child engages in magical thinking, it should not be cause for great concern. Regard it as a normal stage of toddler development. If the child's thinking patterns began to interfere with routines--mealtime, school time, bedtime--you will need to come up with some ways to counter such thinking.

For example, you can show the child who believes that spinning in circles will make his favorite TV show come on that the program always comes on at noon on Saturdays. You can also create compromises that allow the child to carry out everyday routines in spite of his magical thinking.

6 Sources
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By Maureen Ryan
Maureen Ryan is a freelance writer, editor, and teaching consultant specializing in health, parenting, and education.