Imaginary friends

Should you be concerned if your child has a friend that exists only in their imagination? Not at all. In fact, an imaginary friend is a part of normal childhood development. Find out what it means to your child and how you can respond.

At four years of age, your child will have an extremely active imagination and quite often this can extend to having a make-believe friend. It is quite common for children at this stage in their development to have an imaginary companion, so it’s nothing for you to worry about if your little one starts referring to a person or animal that clearly is a figment of their fertile and productive mind.

Why does your child have an imaginary friend?

An imaginary friend can be helping your child in a number of different ways.

  • They provide a companion as a playmate
  • They allow your child to act out feelings they may be concerned about, such as fear or anger
  • They can keep your child ‘safe’ from monsters, shadows, unexplained noises and concerns over new experiences, such as going to the doctor.
  • They enable your child to engage in other forms of behaviour vicariously (such as ‘naughty’ behaviour)
  • They allow your child to be in charge of another person when nearly every other person they are involved with takes charge of them
  • They provide a private world that is just for them – they can control how much information they want to tell others about their friend
  • They prepare them for socialising with other children
  • They can help children communicate issues to adults. For example, a child who is always telling her imaginary friend that he or she is naughty may feel that their parents think that they are misbehaving.
  • They act as a handy scapegoat when the child does something they shouldn’t – the blame for can be placed on their friend.

Are imaginary friends a problem?

Imaginary friends are a part of normal childhood development and shouldn’t cause concern to mums and dads. On the contrary, a youngster with a make-believe friend is most likely a creative and intelligent child. Imaginary companions often exist up until school age, by which time reality has taken over from fantasy and the child is enjoying real-world playmates.

Responding to your child’s imaginary friend

Although your child’s friend is imaginary, it’s important to note that there are often real concerns that lie behind some of the behaviour that they are exhibiting that involves the friend. For example, everyday objects around the family home can be a source of anxiety for a child with an active imagination. Faces and frightening shapes can appear in all manner of furnishings, such as wallpaper, curtains or patterned drapes. If your child says that their friend is scared of a particular object or item in the family home, then the chances are that it is they themselves who are afraid of this. If the friend is always getting a telling off, then it may be that the child is having too many rules or punishments. These should be important cues for the parent to help work out if there any issues that need to be resolved.

When your child speaks about their friend, you shouldn’t deny their existence, as it may cause them distress to have the adults in their lives disbelieve them. It won’t cause the imaginary friend to go away, but it may mean that your child becomes more secretive. Instead, when your child brings their imaginary friend into a conversation, ask questions and allow them to take the lead. Don’t be tempted to take over and impose rules on the friend, after all, it is their companion and not yours! Your child may want you to join in with the make-believe play, so you can go along with their plans by getting the friend a drink when asked or help putting him or her to bed in the evening. Your child may, of course, not want you to get too involved and instead wants you to be a part of their world by simply listening and taking an interest in the imagined adventures they have taken part in together.

The one time when parents should take a firm line is when their child tries to manipulate a situation to their advantage. Children sometimes use their imaginary friends to avoid doing something they don’t want to do, such as go to bed, or to escape the consequences of unacceptable behaviour. If your child tells you that their friend says that they can stay up late, tell them that you are their mummy and you decide what time bedtime is, not the friend. If they are being naughty and saying that it’s the friend telling them to behave that way, you should again reiterate that you are the parent and you are not going to tolerate misbehaving despite what the friend is saying.

As your child gets older, real world experiences will become far more interesting and take greater precedence for them over their pretend world, which will offer an ever decreasing amount of stimulation and reward. Gradually the imaginary friend will fade away. It is important to remember that being three or four years old and not yet having all the skills to deal with the real world can be a frightening time.  Having an imaginary friend to help your child through this stage in their development is both resourceful and creative.

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