Seven-year-old Cindy peers through her tears at the kind face of the St John’s Ambulance lady.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” asks the lady.
“I’ve got a headache,” the little girl eventually whispers. It’s only half a fib. The noise of the fair has caused her head to ache, though that isn’t why she’s crying.
The lady means well, but Cindy knows that nobody can help her. As she lies down in the quiet ambulance, she can’t stop thinking of the awful thing she’s done. Her imagination is filled with the dreadful consequences that will surely follow.
Magical unicorns, or terrifying dragons
Cindy has imaginational overexcitability. What she sees in her mind can seem almost real. Her imagination is able to conjure magical worlds that delight and entrance her. But it can also create bleak, scary scenarios that would never even occur to most children her age.
Cindy enjoys school but her teacher sometimes have trouble getting her attention. On one summer’s day Cindy pauses in the middle of a subtraction problem, entranced by a shimmering pattern in the air outside her classroom. What could be causing the air to move in such a magical way? Perhaps it’s a mirage, the kind that lures thirsty travellers to trudge miles through the desert to imaginary oases. Cindy can almost feel the sun beating down on her as if she were right there in the desert, desperate for water.
Outside in the school playground Cindy and her friend Andrew whizz through time and space in their Tardis, visiting far-off worlds and battling imaginary monsters. On other days Cindy stands alone, gazing up as the sun shines in radiant lines through chinks in the clouds. Cindy smiles to herself, basking in the secret knowledge that she’s looking at a window into heaven.
When Cindy gets home from school she has a long chat with Paddington Bear. Paddington listens with interest and tells her about the adventures he’s had while Cindy’s been away.
Later Cindy visits her friend who lives next door. Alison has a big dog kennel which becomes a log cabin in which Cindy and Alison have to survive the long, harsh winter, making desperate forays into the wilds to keep from starving. Cindy and Alison both have big imaginations. They invent wonderful imaginary worlds together, but can have terrible arguments and even fights when they disagree about what should be happening in their games.
Many children with this overexcitability have imaginary friends. Parents sometimes worry that their children can’t distinguish truth from fiction, but they could console themselves in the knowledge that some of the most creative people through history have had imaginary playmates as children.
Their ability to put concepts together in novel ways usually gives these kids a delightful sense of humour, and they can invent fantastic pretend games to entertain their friends. However they may struggle if their playmates fail to fully appreciate the complexities of their sophisticated made-up worlds.
Imaginational overexcitability and playdate trouble
Playdates can be challenging in other ways, too. A guest can inadvertently cause upset by giving a beloved stuffed animal the ‘wrong’ voice or personality. And walking into a roomful of toys at a friends’ house can be overwhelming – the child knows he should politely join in the game his friend wants to play, but how can he resist immersing himself in the imaginary worlds he is instantly dreaming up?
Nightmares and night terrors
Nightmares and night terrors can be a big problem for children with imaginational overexcitabilities. They might also keep themselves awake at night making up stories, fact and fiction intermingling as they lie down to sleep.
My daughter recently reminded me of one of the many times she woke us in the night when she was younger. “Do you remember that time I told you I’d had a nightmare that Tom and Jerry were throwing tomatoes at me? You know, I didn’t really have a nightmare, I just couldn’t sleep because I had too many ideas. I felt silly saying that so I pretended I’d had a bad dream. I remember you and Daddy trying to hide your smiles when I said about Tom and Jerry throwing the tomatoes!”
Teaching children how to channel their imagination
We can help children with imaginational overexcitability harness their imaginations to serve them in positive ways. Over the years I’ve used a number of way to help my kids do this, often drawing on my training in NLP (neuro-linguistic programming).
One simple technique is to engage their imagination listening to guided visualisations. My kids – inspired by the CDs I make for my hypnotherapy clients – have even made their own visualisations. Their recordings usually start off calm and relaxing and then become louder and more animated as the story takes an exhilarating turn!
What was worrying Cindy?
Are you wondering what happened to Cindy – as I was known back then?
Well, for a few weeks more she was troubled about the raffle ticket she’d bought on a band trip to the fair.
What if hers was the winning ticket?
Where would her family find room for a pony in their tiny house?
How could they afford to feed it?!
Eventually Cindy realised she couldn’t have won the raffle. But she didn’t tell anyone about her fears for many years.
Whenever I’m tempted to laugh off my kids’ worries I remember that day when I cried in the St John’s Ambulance and told the nice lady I had a headache so she could feel better.
Further resources about imaginational overexcitability
PowerWood – Imaginational OE
Jade Ann Rivera – The link between imaginational overexcitability and anxiety
Living with Intensity, by Susan Daniels and Michael Piechowski
This is part three of my series about the five types of overexcitability. See also part one, 7 Signs Your Child has Psychomotor Overexcitability and part two, What is Sensual Overexcitability?.
* * *
Do you or your child have imaginational overexcitability?
How do you help guide that imagination away from worry and anxiety and towards creativity and wellbeing?
I’m planning another post about how we can best channel imaginational overexcitability, and I’d love to include your ideas.