Prof. Ellen Booth Church- Special Friends and Monsters Under the Bed-“Lessons I learned from my Mother”

“All our knowledge has its origin in our perceptions.” –Leonardo Da Vinci

Did you have a special or imaginary friend as a child? I did! Those that know me as an International Keynote speaker may find it hard to believe, but I was a shy, quiet young child. In fact, during first grade they called me “Ellen Church Mouse” because I was shy and quiet. My imaginary friend (Toby) was always there for me when I did decide to actually speak to someone. I could always say things to her that I couldn’t say to others. Luckily, my family was very supportive and understanding. I will never forget the day I was traveling in New York City with my mother. We jumped on a cross-town bus just as the driver closed the door and I immediately started to cry because my imaginary friend was left behind at the curb. My wonderful mother calmly asked the bus driver to open the door and he did! Without even realizing it at the time, I think I received the message that it’s important to respect a child’s imagination. To this day, this message has guided me in my work with children, families, and teachers.

It is not unusual for your young child to have an imaginary friend or a stuffed toy that he treats as a special pal and confidant. Often young children often find it easier to share their thoughts and feelings with a special friend rather than with Mom, Dad, or teacher. There is a particular comfort and satisfaction in knowing that this companion is always there to listen without judgment and to offer just the right response!

Playmate, Protector, Friend
Special or imaginary friends can be your child’s playmate, an alter ego, or a “protector.” A special friend can help your child feel safe in new or challenging situations. Going off to preschool or kinder programs for the first time can be a time when a child chooses to bring an imaginary or stuffed friend along for support. A special friend may appear during difficult times for the family or at a time when your child is working through some fears. Having a “giant” as a friend can be a wonderful comfort when a child feels lonely or small. But an imaginary friend does not have to come from a particular need. It can also arise from the rich inner life of your child’s vivid imagination. Remember, this stage is totally age appropriate and temporary!

In the preschool and kindergarten years, children begin to know the difference between fantasy and reality, but they often feel they don’t have to pay much attention to it! In this stage there is a deliciously permeable border between fantasy and reality, which allows your child to experiment with roles, fears, and ideas as he engages in the important inner work of making sense of the “real” world. Don’t worry if he makes up wild stories – these can lead to wonderful creative writing as he grows. He is not only working through his thoughts and feelings, but also building language and literacy skills. He might even be so creative that he blames a problem on his imaginary friend. If so, speak to the imaginary friend about the problem just as you might to your child. Your youngster will appreciate you for “going along” with the fantasy, and you still get to say what is or is NOT acceptable behavior in your family.

One of the greatest gifts you can give your young child is your belief in his imaginary friend. There is plenty of time for “reality” in the coming years. Let’s protect this delightful period of life that is so rich with imaginative thought and language. It can be a delicate dance between showing your interest in the friend and asking too many questions! The best rule of thumb is to wait until your child tells you something about his friend before asking questions or engaging in conversation. For example, your child might say that his friend went with him to kindergarten today. Then you can ask about what they did together. You could also invite him to draw a picture of what they did. Interestingly, sometimes a child will tell you more about what happened at school this way than if you ask about what HE did today. When you accept your child’s fantasy you are validating his thinking, feelings and imagination.

Your child’s conversations about and with his imaginary friend can provide you with a useful window into his own questions, fears, or interests. Often what your child is saying to his friend (or how he is speaking for him) can tell you a great deal about his emotions. Act like you believe in the imaginary friend and listen carefully – you may gain some important insights into your child’s world.

Monsters Under the Bed
Do you remember having bedtime fears? Was it a monster under the bed or in the closet? Did you have to run and jump onto the bed so something didn’t grab you along the way? Perhaps you had to be sure that you didn’t dangle your hands or feet over the bed! How did you deal with it? Did your parents help you? We lived in an old house with slopped ceilings and strange little closets. I was sure there was a green monster in my closet. Instead of dismissing my fear, my mother helped me deal with it by meeting it! We would go to the closet, open and close the door three times… saying “Hello” each time. It was hard at first but the interesting thing was it started to be fun (and even funny) to open and close the door saying hello to the monster! The “unknown” can be one of the greatest fears for young children. By meeting the unknown of the closet I could see that there was nothing to fear in there. We even decided to give him a name…”Figgy”. I drew pictures of Figgy and left them as gifts. Eventually the whole game ended without any fanfare or effort.

Patience is key when dealing with bedtime fears. A fear that may seem silly to an adult can be very real to a child. Always express understanding about your child’s fears instead of negating them. This will open the doorway to discussion and transformation. The fact that my mother was willing to engage in my interaction with my “monster” has always amazed me. And the creative aspect transformed my fear into an art project!

 Support Your Child’s Imaginary LifeBooks, journals, and toys can invite your child to explore his creative imagination and to express himself. Here are a few items that you can offer your child.
• Books: Choose children’s books with interesting characters that invite talk about imaginary friends. Sometimes the best way to get the conversation going is to ask your child to imagine he is a character in the book. How does he feel? What would HE do?
• Journals: Young children are not too young to start drawing and “writing” in a journal or diary. Keeping a journal about his adventures with an imaginary friend is a particular delight for some children! Your child can also journal about the monster under the bed!
• Play Habitats: One of the wonderful things about an imaginary friend is that you always have someone to take with you when you want to go off to imaginary lands! A play habitat, such as a sheet, parachute (for draping over the furniture), or dollhouse can give your child a safe place to enter his magical world right from the comfort of home!