My earliest memories of daydreaming are from when I was four years old, but I think I’ve always been a daydreamer. I believe that all immersive and maladaptive daydreamers are born immersive daydreamers. In the beginning, our daydreaming isn’t harmful. But my daydreaming first became maladaptive when I was eight years old, so it’s definitely possible for children to struggle with maladaptive daydreaming disorder. So, as a parent, how do you know if your child is indulging in harmless imaginative play or whether there’s something more serious going on?
Thinking back to my own childhood, the most obvious sign of my preoccupation with my daydreams was my willingness, even eagerness, to spend time alone. I never wanted or needed to be around other children. And when I was alone, I would often narrate my daydreams out loud, or at least mouth the words. I also used to pace, even at an early age. It was never quite the typical pacing that many adult maladaptive daydreamers report, but it was a repetitive movement that served the same purpose. I would roller-skate up and down the drive, or I would bounce a tennis ball off the back wall of the house. The same movement, over and over again – and I could do it for hours at a time.
I learned early on that talking to yourself isn’t socially acceptable, and that made me secretive about my daydreaming. But if anyone had asked, I’d have said I liked making up stories in my head. That’s what it was to me – a fun way to spend my time. All my time. As a child, you don’t think that spending a lot of time doing something you enjoy could ever be a problem.
So, as a parent, when should you be concerned? If your child is happy playing alone for several hours at a time, particularly if they seem to be talking to themselves, or they do some kind of repetitive movement over and over and over, that could indicate that they’re a daydreamer. They may or may not be comfortable talking to you about their daydreams, depending on whether they’ve already realised that most people don’t talk to themselves or have stories playing in their heads. But even so, the only way you’ll know for sure whether or not your child is a daydreamer is if they tell you.
Remember, immersive daydreaming is not maladaptive daydreaming. Your child may well be a daydreamer, but if their daydreaming doesn’t get in the way of going to school, spending time with friends and family and having a few real-life hobbies, then it’s probably immersive daydreaming rather than maladaptive daydreaming. Immersive daydreaming isn’t a problem. An immersive daydreamer can control when they daydream and for how long, and they prioritise real life over daydreaming.
But what if you feel your child’s daydreaming is getting out of control? It is possible for maladaptive daydreaming disorder to start in childhood. If your child has very few friends, actively avoids spending time with other people, has trouble concentrating at school, or is daydreaming for several hours after going to bed, then their daydreaming might be doing more harm than good. But even then, you need to be careful about suggesting your child should stop daydreaming. It’s rarely that simple.
Maladaptive daydreaming often begins as an escape. Something in real life is too overwhelming to handle, and so we escape from it by immersing ourselves in fantasy. That can be the case even for children. Their daydreaming is a way to avoid a problem. Expecting them to stop daydreaming if you haven’t solved that problem is just going to make things worse.
My daydreaming first became maladaptive when I was eight years old. The problem was that I didn’t have any friends – so I made them up. And then, of course, I was happy with my imaginary friends so I felt no need to make real ones. And so my daydreaming remained maladaptive throughout most of my teenage years. Eventually I made some real-life friends whose company I enjoyed more than daydreaming, and then my daydreaming gradually faded into the background. If my parents had tried to stop me daydreaming without understanding and helping me with the loneliness I was escaping from, I’d have ended up resenting them for trying to take away the only friends I had.
As a parent, you might be able to see that your child’s daydreaming is preventing them from making the most of real-life opportunities. But unless your child can see that too and unless your child wants to stop daydreaming, making their daydreaming into something “bad” is unlikely to help. Somehow you need to figure out what it is that your child is escaping from, and help them fix that. If you can do that, there’s a good chance their daydreaming will subside on its own.