Supporting Parents. Fostering Change.

Magical Thinking

Dear Cathi-
My mother recently passed away after several months of decline from an illness. My five-year-old, Max, was upset that I was spending so much time at grandma’s because she was sick. One day he said, “I wish grandma would just go away so you could be home with me more!” Several weeks later she died. He’s distraught because he thinks it’s his fault. How can I explain to him and reassure him that it’s not?”

-A grieving daughter and concerned mom

Magical thinking comes from a young child’s naturally egocentric view of the world. At five, children believe that what they feel is what everyone else around them is feeling too. So, if your child is comforted by his stuffed animal when he’s upset, he may bring you his stuffed animal when you feel bad. Magical thinking makes your son omnipotent. If he really wants a puppy and one appears then he believes he made it happen. If he wants grandma to go away and she does, he believes he made it so.

Magical thinking figures into young kids’ pretend play —for toddlers and preschoolers the ability to make fantastical beings come to life and bad people disappear feels real. Even though they’re very perceptive—experts at seeing, hearing, feeling and thinking, they don’t yet know how to reflect and discern what’s real from what’s make-believe.

The magical thinking phase of child development is normal and mostly delightful to witness. There’s nothing better than sipping tea at a fairy’s tea party or listening to stuffed animals talk and sing. Truthfully, it’s bittersweet when their wholehearted belief in the imaginary starts to fade at age six or seven.

The problem arises when something bad or traumatic happens, like your mother’s death, and your son believes he’s responsible. At this age his concept of reality is still mixed with magical thinking, so he may be convinced that something he said or did caused her to get sick and die.

As you and your family work through this loss, here are some things to notice with Max:
-He may express his grief feelings through play instead of verbally
-He may express worry that other people he loves (including you) will die
-He may regress and need more nurturing and attention

While you can explain to him that grandma died because her body was sick, it will take time for him to comprehend. Keep reassuring him that it’s not his fault and that you love him no matter what. Don’t hide your own feelings of grief. If you do, you’re sending him the message that these sad feelings are not OK. If you’re confused and worried about the best way to grapple with this, a grief therapist can help.

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