Magical thinking is a coping mechanism that commonly emerges when a child is either confused about a certain situation or feels helpless in the face of something that threatens their security. Magical thinking describes a child's attempts to interpret an event through the lens of magical or unrealistic ideas about cause and effect. This may take the form of superstitions, such as when a child believes that performing a certain task will prevent something bad from occurring. Or it might mean adopting ideas that unfairly attribute their own mental states to real world actions, such as when a child wonders if his angry thoughts might have caused someone to die. Or it can be as simple as believing God is punishing them for some perceived wrongdoing they might have committed.
The source of magical thoughts
Psychologists often look upon magical thinking in children as though it's a product of their silly naivety and inexperience, and to some extent, it is. But we should also remember that magical thinking is not exclusive to children – adults engage in this regularly, too. How many adults believe in guardian angels? An all-seeing, all powerful God who knows their every thought? How many grown-ups expect their prayers to be heard and even translated into real-world actions? How many harbor hidden superstitions? How common is it to find adults who, amongst difficult circumstances, may secretly wonder if God isn't punishing them for past sins? Caregivers need to remember that magical thinking is a human phenomenon. At its source is a deep psychological tendency to try and find meaning in events that isn't there, or to believe in higher psychic powers that may be at work in our lives. Addressing these beliefs isn't as simple as curing children of their childish ignorance.
When magical thinking turns destructive
The biggest problem with magical thinking is that although it's a defense mechanism meant to give a child greater empowerment and control, it sometimes gives rise to more serious psychological distress. As Marans & Adelman observe, "Although some children may rely on their magical thinking in an attempt to reassert a sense of control, as a form of restitution in the face of overhwelming helplessness, such thinking may allow them to wrongly conclude that the 'evil' thoughts they secretly harbor are indeed dangerous and powerful, and are the root of the 'bad' events. The resulting harsh self-evaluation leads to internal confusion, feelings of shame and badness, threatened loss of the real object or loss of love, giving rise to heightened anxiety and attendant symptom formation." (Marans & Adelman, 1997, p. 211)
How to deal with magical thinking in children
1. Once again, parents must be careful not to assume they know what a child is thinking. One problem with magical thinking is that children tend to keep these secret beliefs to themselves. Caregivers should make sure they are talking regularly to kids, and voicing some of your own fleeting thoughts on the subject can help a child open up about theirs: "Sometimes I think that I did something to bring this upon us, that it's all my fault. But then I remember..."
2. Repeatedly talk with kids about other explanations for what transpires in our lives. The more children understand why something occurred, the less likely they are to engage in magical thinking.
3. Since a large contributor to magical thinking is the desire for empowerment and control, help children find ways to feel empowered through a realistic interpretation of events. For example, in the case of a car accident you might talk about how driving safely and behaving ourselves in the car can reduce the odds of something happening. In the case of violence, you might talk about how people grow violent over time, and how we can interact with others in a kind way that makes violence less likely.