Written by David Heitz | Published on December 23, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on December 23, 2013

What Is Fantasy?

The word “fantasy” is used to describe imagined things and/or events, especially when they are not probable or possible. Fantasy is a healthy part of being human. It can provide a relaxing escape from reality (in the form of a daydream, for example) or be a helpful way of thinking through an important upcoming event. It is an element of much childhood play.

Fantasy becomes a form of mental illness when a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, or when fantasy intrudes upon a person’s ability to live a full and productive life.

Fantasy in Children

Children enjoy pretending, playing make-believe, reading fantasy books, and watching fantasy movies.

Children usually begin to experience fantasy thoughts at around the age of three. Children at this age spend a lot of time engaging in fantasy. They are not always able to tell fantasy from reality.

By the age of four or five, a child can begin to tell the difference between what's real and what's not. However, popular culture and societal norms encourage children to maintain some belief in fantasy (for instance, a belief in Santa Claus), so this ability is not absolute until they are older.

Fantasy is healthy in children. It helps them process emotions and even helps them to begin to understand reality. Children may have imaginary friends or pretend that a toy has thoughts and feelings. This is a healthy part of learning how to relate to other people.

Parents should feel free to participate in a child's fantasy world, but not too much. Children enjoy fantasy because they control it (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2013).

When his or her environment is frequently frightening or unpredictable, a child’s fantasy life may not develop normally. He or she may withdraw too far into an unhealthy fantasy world in an attempt to escape from reality.

Children whose fantasy lives do not develop normally may abstain from fantasy altogether. Instead, they base their experiences on logic and never feel novelty or surprise (Bonovitz, C., 2012).

Fantasy in Adults

In adults, much fantasy occurs effortlessly. Adults fantasize for relaxation and pleasure. Fantasy is often shaped by entertainment such as movies and television.

A person who has trouble differentiating between fantasy and reality, or a person who is unable to properly engage with reality, should be evaluated by a medical or psychiatric professional for a possible mental illness or personality disorder.

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