Monday, 15 March 2010

The perils of imagination

Do you remember singing a song in school assembly which went:
Think of a world without any flowers,think of a wood without any trees,
think of a sky without any sunshine,
think of the air without any breeze:...?

Bleak. It got worse; it went on to there being no people or houses; "no-one to love and nobody to care". As an over-imaginative child of five, this hymn was guaranteed to fill my head with worries which loomed particularly large once my bedtime story was over and my quasi-bunnikins lamp was switched off.

A vivid imagination is seen by many parents as a wonderful thing - such great ideas for stories and games, so expressive, so much to say - but to the child it can be a burden. Imagination is not switched off when Music And Movement ends or the last line of the poem is finished. Imagination takes the child wherever it wants: anything is possible. (Imagine if you got kidnapped. Could you breathe with a gag on? Hold your breath and make sure...What if there's somebody under the bed? What if they grabbed your feet? etc etc)

If your child's imagination is working over time, you will find things become very real to her. "It's only a story!" just does not work. Children with this level of sensitivity can empathise very strongly with characters in books, for example, and feel like they are going through the plot of the book themselves.

Watching a Disney film and getting frightened by the baddies; over-imaginative children know rationally that it isn't actually real, but it feels real. So a brush-off comment such as: "Don't be silly, no witches are going to come and get you!" rejects the over-imaginative child's strong feelings of fear. Instead the child will now feel misunderstood, belittled and still afraid of the witches.

If an over-imaginative child cannot trust her carers to take her worries seriously (and you will need to work out whether she is stalling for time or is really bothered about something), then she will have to face her fears on her own. This can result in high levels of anxiety.

One way of approaching a punishingly overactive imagination is to take steps to train it. Take the imagination in another direction instead of one which keeps your child awake and worrying. The technique of creative visualisation can help here, but you really do need to go into detail, guiding your child to imagine things which will comfort and relax her. It is not enough to say "Don't worry; think of something nice instead, like Christmas".

To meditatively guide your child's imagination, enabling her to visualise a sanctuary, a safe place, a magic pool etc., may not be something that will come easily to you, so I recommend you look into one of the many guided meditation CDs which are available. Your library should be able to find you some which are suitable for youngsters to listen to (some may be too complex or demanding).

A CD which I have just tried with my daughter is called "The Seashore", by Rachel and Charles Vald, and I highly recommend it. "The Seashore" can be thought of as very gentle guided meditation aiding a better night's sleep. Prima and I listened to it together whilst lying next to each other on her bed, after bath-time. 

The CD, which is available from Hypnosis Healthcare LLP begins with simple relaxation exercises, then - the best bit - the guided story begins; building sand castles, riding on a boat, playing with dolphins and much more. It is recommended for children aged 4-11, but I think it would be a good idea to listen together with your child if she is fairly young. I had to explain what "life jackets" are used for, for example, and I think my being there helped to ensure that my daughter carried on listening.

"This is really helping," Prima whispered part-way through. "I can really imagine it. Tell the man I like the story," she added, drowsily. To stop the child waking up at the end of the CD they are told to use their imagination to create their own adventures with the characters they have met in the story, which allows them to drift off into a lovely dream and a better night's sleep with the gentle sound of ocean waves. Prima was still awake at the end of the guided imagery but wanted to "keep the waves on", and seemed very relaxed and happy.

We can't stop our children from being imaginative and sensitive, but there are drawbacks to these gifts which we need to acknowledge and attend to. It is up to us to help children with active imaginations to harness, benefit from, and enjoy their special talent.

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