Toddlers and magical thinking

Remember when Baby’s idea of a good time was throwing things on the floor, watching them fall, and then waiting for you to pick them up again? Even if they never quite managed to totally grow out of that stage, when they first started out, it was because they were doing some of their first cause-and-effect experiments. While those first few experiments may have given them some valuable information about how gravity works here on planet earth, not every assumption they have made about cause and effect since then has necessarily given them a very clear picture of the world.

People of all ages have a tendency towards what’s called “magical thinking” now and then. Magical thinking happens when your mind draws a connection about cause and effect that isn’t grounded in reality, and it’s why people end up with superstitions like good luck charms, or pre-game rituals. More than horseshoe-collectors and professional athletes, though, toddlers are some of the most magical thinkers around. This is because they’re not starting out with a lot of information about the world, and without that basis of what logical cause and effect look like, anything can seem possible.

What does toddler magical thinking look like?

Everything about Baby is magical – why should their thinking be any different? In toddlers, though, magical thinking may be less likely to show up as superstition, and more often as fears that can seem illogical to adults. These fears can range from childhood classics like the dark, or the monster under the bed, to less well-known fears like fear of being pulled down the drain in the bathtub, or fear of the toilet.

These fears can come up because of associations with scary events – nightmares that happen in the dark, or a loud crashing noise – or because of your toddler’s growing imagination. They may not have the spatial awareness to know that they can’t fit down the drain in the bathtub, but they sure can imagine that what’s down there wouldn’t be much fun.

Magical thinking in toddlers can also appear as a tendency to assign human traits to inanimate objects, like a car that’s sad, or a sleepy teddy bear, and as made up explanations for how things happen as they try to make sense of the world.

When does magical thinking end?

Magical thinking generally starts to disappear gradually around kindergarten – it can begin to fade out as early as 4 or as late as 6. If your little one has a fear or strange habit based on magical thinking, though, that doesn’t mean it will stick around until their first day of school. They're still a toddler, and could easily forget or move on from any individual habit caused by magical thinking sooner than that.

Fears based in magical thinking don’t always respond well to logic, though. If your child is afraid of the potty, telling them there’s nothing to be afraid of might not help – and telling them a story about how the creature they're afraid of has been defeated might.

  • Sue Hubbard: “The Kids’ Doctor: Fear of the dark is a normal part of development.” Chicago Tribune. Chicago Tribune, April 11 2012. Web.
  • “Ages & Stages: How Children Use Magical Thinking.” Scholastic. Scholastic Inc., 2017 Web.
  • “Emotional Issues and Bathroom Problems.” HealthyChildren. American Academy of Pediatrics, November 21 2015. Web.
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