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Toddler Imagination & Toddler Anxiety

One of the milestones of being a toddler is learning that some things can stand for something else. This symbolism sparks an overactive imagination, and can sometimes lead to stress.

The active imagination of a toddler can sometimes cause fear or anxiety.
The active imagination of a toddler can sometimes cause fear or anxiety.

Imagination surfaces when your toddler takes what she has learned through play about how her past experiences can be symbolized, and manipulates these very symbols in new, not-yet-experienced ways. This is a fabulous moment, because it is a first ray in the sunrise of creativity. If she can get things to stand for other things, there is no end to what she, through play, can figure out about her place in the world.

Imagination and Comfort
Imagination and Fear
Her Own Way of Seeing

Imagination and Comfort
Playing is a need. And the child of around 20 months is still very much a willing slave to her needs, including hunger, pain, anger, fear of separation, and the need to play. Mental activity develops in the service of these needs.

We see this, for example, in the way children often need "transitional companions" — those beloved dolls, stuffed animals, or blankets that they carry about for a time. The importance of these creatures and their imagined powers should not be taken lightly. Most parents have experienced at least a few desperate moments when a child needs and calls for such an object, and it cannot be located.

Donny was so exhausted after his full day at a family picnic that his usual playtime after dinner was one disaster after another. Finally, in desperation, he wailed for his "softie," a small beanbag toy. When it could not be located immediately, he crossed over from despair to meltdown. But when he was finally reunited with his beloved softie, he was instantly calmed. The source of the toy's "magic" should be clear: Donny's imagination had imbued it with such special significance that it surpassed human contact. The softie was imagined to stand for comfort, security, peace, and contentment.

Imagination and Fear
Play, with or without language, is important to children's emotional landscape. Through play, they not only explore positive experiences and feelings, but they learn to deal with painful ones as well. In fact, the power of play to help a child manage anxiety is considerable!

Has Matthew been experiencing separation anxiety? He can take a mommy doll and baby doll and wrap them up or tape them together if he really wants them to stay together "always." Is Brandon worried about that new German shepherd next door? He can throw a stuffed doggy across the room to act out his fear of the dog or to "boss it around" without fear of reprisal.

As with all "magic," imagination is hard to control. Worries accompany the omnipotence of this era, and the management of anxiety becomes a major task and preoccupation. This, too, is normal and expected. The fear of the dark is a good example of how a child comes to master such anxieties.

Rarely is such a fear a direct result of something traumatic that actually happens in darkness. More commonly, the fear is rooted in the visual experience of being alone, and the aloneness engenders a sense of fear and danger. The imaginings begin to cascade, and the need to summon help seems overwhelming.

Even Halloween becomes a problem where it wasn't before. Beloved Uncle Tommy becomes a serial killer under the wrong mask, and it takes a lot of reassurance before his young nephew wants to sit on his lap again.

Why? The very complexity of the new symbols of experience that fuel such wonderful imagination, play, and learning turn against the child. Now he believes bad things can happen, since he regularly explores that very theme in his own play.

What keeps this fear manageable is the acceptance of the seriousness of the fear, and the use of simple language to explain what happened. The toddler's mom might say, "This Uncle Tommy is real, and the one you thought was Uncle Tommy is not, and of course you got scared, but you're okay now."

Her Own Way of Seeing
In all of this, however, don't forget that your little one does not see and experience the world the way you do. Not yet. Even when your toddler acquires more language, don't forget that the magic world is still there. Vacuum cleaners can persist as hungry monsters, and the bathtub drain may continue to be a source of real concern.

This is particularly worth remembering when your child is exploring: Her imagination is still transforming what she observes. Her version of "cause and effect" is probably not yours. If a child displays uneasiness or fear in the face of a new "discovery," remember the awesome power of the imagination, respect your child's emotional turmoil, and deal with it accordingly. And reassure, reassure, reassure.

Play and imagination provide a powerful, effective way to cope with new fears in the child's expanding world. Imagination allows the child to be the master of past events and future unknowns, addressing her worries and working through them to a safe and happy ending.

From Me, Myself and I: How Children Build Their Sense of Self — 18 to 36 Months by Kyle D. Pruett, M.D. Available wherever books are sold. Copyright © 1999 by Goddard Press, Inc.

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