The following is a guest post (one of a series of three) from Carla Saunders the founder of Parenting From The Inside Out. Carla is an experienced and qualified child behaviour expert (ex NHS). She can help parents to first understand and then to find solutions for any behavioural difficulties, ranging from sleep problems, and anxiety issues to difficult teens/attachment issues.
To some degree, even as adults, we employ magical thinking patterns to make sense of our experiences and the world we live in.
We decide that our ‘lucky’ shirt will always be a winner in a forthcoming job interview, that we always have eat a certain meal before sporting performances so we will do well, or we use rituals and patterns to help us manage anxieties. OCD thinking is an extreme version of this thinking.
Children ( before the age of approx 5) naturally and normally use magical thinking as part of a normal developmental flow. Our brains are adapted to be pattern spotters and so we make links between what we do, or think and what happens. In the job interview example above we may think – I got my last job wearing this, so it must bring me luck. I will wear it again. Low and behold if it isn’t washed and ironed on the day……..
Understanding that children make huge magical thinking leaps helps us to understand why we need to be clear and developmentally appropriately honest with children so that they don’t use the technique and put 2 and 2 together to make 500!
A good example is when someone dies. Euphemisms are unhelpful. Describing someone as having ‘gone to sleep’ or ‘gone to be with the angels as they were so good’ is potentially frightening and distressing for children who may now have fantasies that if they sleep they too will be gone, or that if they are good they will die. No information may also lead to confusion and distress. If for example the last time they saw a loved relative before their death the child was noisy or ‘naughty’, they may feel it was their behaviour that led to their family member dying. Children use magical thinking to ‘fill in the gaps’ – so be careful not to leave too many!
Divorce is another prime time for children to make meaning of a confusing situation by employing magical thinking. If they are not sure why things happened or why they moved, or Daddy moved, or why Mummy is always sad now, they will try to make sense of it in the only way their young brains can. These ‘narratives’ stay entrenched and children can feel for years that they were to blame for a break up or have totally the wrong idea about what happened.
So, make sure if you are going through any tough times that you help your children to understand what is happening – at an age appropriate level – and check their understanding as you go along. It can save a lot of heartbreak and confusion. Magical thinking is a wonderful developmental stage in the right situation, but when grief, confusion and fear are made sense of it through its lens, it is a dangerous view indeed…
Much of the life story work I do focuses on working out what a child understands of their situation and then allowing the ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ to replace the negative magical thinking. Reframing events and making emotional sense of them is hard work for youngsters, but always beneficial, with children being freed up to let go of an emotional load that was not theirs to carry.