Midnight Monsters and Imaginary Companions
Imaginary companions are an integral part of many children’s lives. They provide comfort in times of stress, companionship when they’re lonely, someone to boss around when they feel powerless, and someone to blame for the broken lamp in the living room. Most important, an imaginary companion is a tool young children use to help them make sense of the adult world.
You can learn a lot about your child especially the stresses he’s feeling and the developmental skills he’s trying to master by paying attention to how and when his imaginary companions appear. They usually first appear (at least according to children’s own reports) at around age two and a half to three, which is about the same time children are starting complex fantasy play. The occurrence of imaginary companions and fantasy play tell you that your child is beginning to think abstractly, which is a remarkable event.
Children this age have learned to replace physical objects with mental images of those objects. That may sound a bit strange at first. All it means is that a three-year-old can get a feeling of security by thinking about a favorite teddy bear as well as by holding the bear itself. The abstract image or concept stands in for the physical object.
We can see this development of abstract thinking in another important area as well: children’s fears. Infants and toddlers tend to be afraid of such things as a growling dog or a thunderstorm things that are actually there at that moment. These are known as concrete fears. Preschoolers, however, begin to show different fears. They talk about ghosts in the closet, monsters under the bed, or burglars breaking into their room. These are abstract fears the things they are frightened of don’t have to be there at the time. From a developmental perspective, a child’s fear of monsters under the bed is a reason for celebration. It tells you that the child is struggling to master the intricacies of abstract thinking.
It also explains why using a concrete approach to the fear, such as suggesting that the two of you check under the bed or in the closet for monsters or ghosts, doesn’t work. Your child will simply reply that the monsters are hiding and will come out later. He’s right, of course, since his fears reside in his head, not in his room.
Empowering Your Child
One way to use an abstract approach to solve this problem is to find some way of giving your child a feeling of control and power over the things that frighten him. For example, when my son was about three and a half years old, he started waking up frightened several times in the middle of the night. He told me there were monsters in his room.
After three episodes of this, I went to the local pharmacy and bought an empty, brightly colored plastic spray bottle. I told my son that it contained Monster Spray, which kept away monsters while he slept. (It’s a good idea to keep the bottle empty, not only to avoid getting liquids all over his room, but to avoid the possibility that it might “run out” when it’s needed the most. Besides, when your child sprays the bottle, he can feel the air rushing out of the nozzle, thus demonstrating that it works!)
I then asked him what would frighten the monsters and keep them away. He pondered for a minute and then told me that a big, growling dog would do that. I drew a picture of a ferocious dog on the plastic bottle.