One of my earliest memories of gripping fear came as a result of my imaginational overexcitability. All the fear in my tiny little body was focused on one figure.

And you’ll never guess who.

It was…

the Cookie Monster.

It’s so embarrassing to admit! I was quite young, preschool age, and while I basically enjoyed watching Sesame Street (really, I was more of a 3-2-1 Contact girl), there was something about him that didn’t sit well with me. He would just eat and eat and was never satisfied!

That’s the image that would come to me at night, in my bed — a giant, menacing cookie monster that would eat and eat and was never satisfied. It’s a funny story to tell as an adult, but please believe me when I say that the terror I was feeling was real. It still gives me the wiggins!

For an introduction to overexcitabilities click here. This is the second in my five-part series about overexcitabilities. If you’d like to follow along please take a moment to click the “follow” button on the right of this page and these articles will be sent directly to your inbox.

As a society we interpret the imagination as a tool for play — a light place of fun and escape — and a lot of the time it is just that. However, for many gifted children there’s a flip-side, the imagination can be a dark, wild, and uncontrollable place.

The imaginational overexcitability (OE) may be the most frustrating OE for gifted parents and professionals to identify and cope with. My mother told me over and over again that the Cookie Monster wasn’t real, that he lived in the TV and could never “get me.” It did not matter; my imagination had a life of its own.

At night, alone in my bedroom, my imagination was the boss.

The imaginational OE is an inborn characteristic of many gifted children that expresses itself as an unusually heightened imagination. Gifted children coping with this OE often have a hard time distinguishing between their fantasy and reality. They might have imaginary friends or create whole imaginary worlds. They sometimes have extra-vivid dreams, even night terrors.

Does your gifted child get wrapped up in their own inner world?  Do they get themselves into trouble for lying or exaggerating?  When confronted, do they defend themselves with such conviction that you find yourself “believing” them, despite having actual proof and knowing better? That’s the imaginational OE getting your sweet babies into hot water.

Here’s the kicker: your gifted child experiences her experiences and exaggerations (or lies) as truth. For them, it feels true. For them, it’s an injustice for anyone to perceive it as anything different. It’s our job to acknowledge this dichotomy with empathy and gently teach strategies for harnessing their imagination.

When a child tells me their imagined experience of a scary dream or vision, I first express empathy that I know how real the story feels for them.  Then I teach them how to use their incredible imagination to combat the fear-inducing entity. For example, they can imagine a device that wards off the monster.  (For me, I told myself that nothing could attack me if I was under my magical blanket).

And when I suspect that one of my students is telling a story with a “flourish” or exaggeration, I listen to the story and reflect back what I think is important to them.  I then ask questions such as “Is this what I would’ve seen or heard if I’d been there?” or “What would I have seen or heard if I was there?” A fun one that helps diffuse tension is “What would your dog or cat have seen if they had been there?”

A lot of the time my students won’t answer, but I know they are thinking about it. This line of questioning helps put them on a path to realizing that there is a space called reality and it exists outside their imagination.  Once they perceive this distinction, they are more fully able to use their imagination as an expression of creativity, rather than as a source of disconnection, pain, or fear.

Has this or a different approach helped your child to cope with their imaginational OE? I’d love to hear your story in the comments below.