Monsters, Ghosts and Magical Thinking

The children decked out in their trick-or-treating Halloween costumes provided a wonderful window into modern day fantasies.  Contemporary action heroes were in evidence including figures from outer space.  Of course, there were the requisite number of witches, goblins and other scary creatures.  Also to be seen were the “good” fairies and ballerinas.  The animal kingdom was also well represented.  

For the most part, it would seem that children have their own clear ideas about whom or what they want to be on Halloween.  Parents may derive some insight from their children’s choices as to the ways in which they wish to empower themselves.  Costumes and props provide the ingredients that magically transform little – and not so little – children into someone bigger, stronger, more beautiful, talented and often more powerful than they actually are.

Child Psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg wrote in her book “The Magic Years” that the years of early childhood are “magic years” because it is then that the child in the psychological sense is a magician.  He believes that his actions and his thoughts can bring about events.  “Later he extends this magic system and finds human attributes in natural phenomena and sees human or supra-human causes for natural events or for ordinary occurrences in his life.”  

The move toward reason and acquiring knowledge of an objective world is a gradual process.  But along the way the child confronts dangerous creatures of his imagination and both real and imagined dangers of the outer world.  A child’s own angry or aggressive feelings can feel dangerous to him and at times have to be placed instead on the monster in the closet or under the bed.  A parent’s presence may be necessary to keep those dangerous monsters at bay.  In the same way, if a parent were to get sick, a child may see that as the result of an angry thought or hateful wish she experienced toward the parent.  Having magical powers is a two-edged sword that can be dangerous.

While believing that his actions and thoughts can make things happen, young children are also confronted with their powerlessness in the face of the adult world.  They really can’t make things happen in the way they would like them to happen.  Parents are bigger and stronger and do not always act in accordance with the wishes of their children.  It is not surprising that children have meltdowns and at times behave in ways that seem irrational to parents.  The conflict between magical thinking and reality can be overwhelming, too much for immature coping skills.  Trying to use reason to influence a young child is pointless.

As they gain increased knowledge of the real world and greater cognitive abilities, children are better able to respond to and to reason themselves.  During this formative time, pretend play serves a most valuable purpose.  They can try out various roles and parts of their imagination without serious consequences, returning to the safety of their own selves and protection of their parents.  Halloween costumes give permission to magical thinking and the powerful attributes of whatever character you choose to be.

As adults, do we ever fully give up magical thinking?  Our children endow us with magical powers such as kissing an injury to make it better. They may half seriously, half in fun avoid sidewalk cracks – “step on a crack, break your mother’s back.”  On the other hand, adults knock on wood, throw salt over their shoulders and do various other things of that nature to ward off evil spirits.  “See a penny, pick it up and all the day you’ll have good luck.”  So perhaps, like our children, we use magical thinking to prevent bad things and make good things happen.  We may not really believe in it but why take chances.

Trick or treat!