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Imaginary Friend Blamed for Bad Behavior

QUESTION: My five-year-old has created a girl named Jessica who lives in South America in a garbage dump and crawls through the windows to wreak havoc. Jessica tears apart feather pillows and pours all the water out of the bathroom and is mean to the cats, among other things. I have told my daughter that she must tell Jessica the rules at our house, but "Jessica doesn't listen". I have told her that I don't want Jessica coming to our house if she can't behave, but "she comes when I'm not looking and then she leaves". I have told my daughter that I know that Jessica is inside of her and that she does the things that Jessica does, but I am told by a tearful daughter that "Jessica is real".

I have made my daughter pay for the damage Jessica does by having her help clean and by paying for destroyed things out of her allowance. My husband is losing patience with our daughter's "lying" and I am getting worried that I am letting her off the hook too easily. Can you help?

ANSWER: Your daughter's feelings are real! She has merely made up a name for a part of her that needs to be expressed. Her need to create such an imaginary character in order to express "unpopular" feelings is a sign that your family atmosphere is not conducive to these feelings coming out in a more direct fashion. Your job as parents is to understand the feelings that "Jessica" represents and address them.

Instead of exiling "Jessica" consider inviting her in and getting to know her. She is a part of your daughter's identity that needs to be understood and integrated rather than extinguished. Continued rejection and banishment will only exacerbate the situation. At best your daughter will repress all feelings she interprets as "bad" until they erupt (by adolescence?) in some more serious behavior or at worst become diverted to psychosomatic or other more severe symptoms of depression. Without helping her resolve these feelings, she will learn not to bring her real needs to you in the future. She will also be in danger of experiencing your love as conditional to having only "positive" feelings and/or behaviors.

The fact that your daughter cannot put these feelings "underground" is a blessing! She is still showing a belief and hope that you will be able to help her with the internal conflict and needs that "Jessica's" behavior reflects. Her conflict between "good" and "bad" must be resolved so that she can have and express a full range of feelings which are separate from house rules and her behavior. Otherwise she is vulnerable to developing a part of her personality that will turn against herself (as she may experience you doing with Jessica). This kind of "turning against the self" is a very detrimental to ongoing development. If she internalizes your rejection of these feelings now, they will continue to haunt her in other forms.

The fact that "Jessica" lives in a garbage dump likely indicates some level of emotional deprivation she is experiencing. She needs you to be trustworthy in helping her understand where deprivation is being experienced in her life. Is there a precipitating event that has caused her to feel neglected in some way? Or is she not getting needed attention at this time in her development in some manner that is necessary to her growth?

If the idea that your daughter is experiencing some kind of inner deprivation comes as a shock to you, it is probable that your own childhood (and/or your husband's) did not provide deeply accepting and nurturing role models. Review your own experience of being loved and accepted for all of your feelings, even though certain behaviors were clearly off limits. Could you go to your parents with "negative" feelings like anger, jealousy and sadness or were "positive" expressions of love or politeness the only range allowed?

Refrain from contributing to more distress by lecturing to her about "lying" or focusing on punishment and consequences which emphasize retribution. In this case the untruths are not manipulative in nature. She is telling you her truth when she says she cannot make "Jessica" go away. The emotional meaning of this might include a cry for help to integrate all of her "negative" feelings (anger, sadness, jealousy perhaps). Consider how you might learn more about the feelings she has attributed to her imaginary character, and why they are coming up at this time.

Talk with your husband about creating an atmosphere of acceptance for these feelings. This does not mean you condone these behaviors. But you do accept her feelings as "real". By and large your daughter sounds like she is a well-behaved and obedient child who does the consequences you ask of her like cleaning up after "Jessica" and paying for damages. What is missing is the acceptance that she is trying to get an emotional message across to you, but is too young to articulate it in any other way than through her behavior.

When talking about feelings that "Jessica" has, be sure to maintain a curious and loving tone into inquiring about her anger. Do not try to immediately "fix" these feelings. Expect it to take a bit of time for your daughter to experience safety and acceptance of these feelings before she tells you more. Your goal should be merely to accept that "Jessica" does have these very big feelings right now and wonder what they could possibly be about! Spend less energy on the behavior. Simply let your daughter know that Jessica is welcome to talk about her feelings in your house, but not to ruin things. The first two times, however, avoid any punishment and simply focus on "what Jessica's feelings could possibly be, to do this?" Be interested, warm and curious. Do not reject "Jessica", for she is the key to understanding your daughter's pain. When you have your daughter's trust, she will express more of what is going on so that you can help her. If the emotional meaning of her behavior continues to "stump" you, seek a professional counselor with expertise in child development to help you interpret her needs at this time.

Take comfort in the fact that your daughter's spirit remains strong enough to continue to express her reality to you. You must have given her enough nurturing to establish a trust in your ability to help her. And you have contributed, no doubt, to encouraging her wonderful creativity and self-expression. Now your job as parents is to steer your focus away from punishment and retribution, and turn it towards understanding the true nature of this complex little girl!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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