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What is making your teen daydream?
By Ken Potts | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 2/22/2009 12:03 AM

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It's hard telling where Mike is. Just this week he's raced cars at Le Mans, floated above the clouds in a hang glider, invented a machine that does homework, and battled space pirates in the outer rings of Saturn.

Unfortunately, Mike has done all this while sitting in his desk at school, playing left field on his baseball team and practicing the piano. Needless to say, his teachers, coaches and instructors, not to mention his parents, are all a bit aggravated. And Mike himself is often confused and embarrassed (and sometimes a bit defiant) about his lack of attentiveness.

There are more than a few "Mikes" in this world. It's surprising how many of our most talented writers, scientists, artists, inventors, musicians and entrepreneurs started out as "Mikes." On the other hand, there are also a number of adults who remain lost in their day dreams and whose lives remain filled with aggravated friends, family members, colleagues and bosses; and who remain themselves confused, embarrassed and defiant.

Kids who day dream usually do so for a couple of reasons. For many it is hard wired right into their personalities. They look at the world not as it is, but as it might be. They see possibilities and potentials the rest of us don't. They create an inner world that is rich and full and exciting.

Kids also day dream as a means of stress management. That's actually a good thing. Life, even for children, is inevitably stressful. To take a brief side trip from reality into a more manageable world of our own creation can be a healthy way to deal with such stress.

Unfortunately, some children find their lives so stressful that they flee into their inner worlds much more than is good for them. They are absent from the here and now so often that their lack of attentiveness adds even more stress to their lives. And the more trouble their day dreaming causes, the more they are tempted to escape into their private fantasies. It becomes a vicious circle.

When we are confronted with day dreamers, then, we first need to sort out what's behind their day dreaming. If we see children who seem to be fleeing into fantasy as a way of coping with an overwhelming reality, then getting them into some sort of counseling is probably the best idea (and since they are children, family counseling will also likely be helpful). This is especially true when their inner fantasy life is filled with anger and violence.

If, however, children's day dreaming seems to be more an expression of their basic personality, then we want to help them learn how to get along better in the real world they still have to live in. A lot of such learning involves simple self-management skills. Making "to do" lists, taking notes in class, planning out a day, even listening skills like focusing on what another person is saying, are all things that can be learned.

Now I realize that such self-management can be a pain. So we want to sprinkle our lessons liberally with incentives and rewards. We could use brightly colored paper and gold stars for "to do" lists. We might offer a quarter for each page of coherent class notes, or add computer graphics to a daily schedule, or play the old telephone game to practice listening.

As much as humanly possible, though, we want to avoid trying to squelch our children's day dreaming. It is a valuable gift to us all. Our world would be a much poorer place without those people who can imagine new and different worlds, who can put together words and sounds in new and pleasing ways, who can create something out of nothing.

Our goal, then, is to raise children who can be lost in space, yet down to earth when the situation requires.

• The Rev. Kenn Potts is a pastoral counselor and marriage and family therapist with Samaritan Interfaith Counseling Centers, Naperville and Downers Grove. His book, "Take One A Day," can be ordered at local bookstores or online.