It is quite common for children of about three or four years of age to have an imaginary friend. This may be another child or could be a magical person or an animal. Sometimes the imaginary friends change as the child grows older.
Often children who have imaginary friends are only children, or oldest children in the family; but having an imaginary friend does not mean that your child is lonely. They are usually creative, imaginative children.
As the child grows older the real world takes over and by the time the child is going to school the imaginary friend usually just quietly disappears.
Imaginary friends are true to these children – and this is quite different to Lying.
What do imaginary friends do?
Imaginary friends can be helping your child in different ways.
- As playmates providing companionship.
- They allow the child to play creative games and try out different ways of doing things.
- They are a way for children to practice getting on with others.
- They are a way for the child to safely test out different actions and feelings, eg fear or anger.
- They allow the child to be in charge and control someone else at a time in her life when most people seem to be controlling her.
- They allow children to have a private life that adults are not part of.
- They can help children to deal with strong feelings such as fears or anger, by having a fearful friend or being angry with their friend. ,
- They can help children if things in their lives are stressful. For example a child who is always cross with her friend may be in a situation where she feels that the adults in her life are always cross with her.
- Children who are very ‘good’ may have a friend who is very ‘naughty’ and does some of the things the child would perhaps like to do.
- They can help children avoid getting into trouble with parents because when some thing is wrong “the friend did it”.
Are imaginary friends a problem?
Imaginary friends are a part of normal development and rather than being a problem they can help children to deal with some of the stresses in their lives.
Sometimes an imaginary friend can help parents to see where a problem is.
- For example if the imaginary friend is afraid of the dark it is likely that the child is afraid of the dark and learning to manage her fears through the friend.
- If the friend is always misbehaving and getting into trouble it may be that the child is having too may rules or punishments.
Sometimes children can use their imaginary friends to avoid doing something they don’t want to.
- If this happens a lot, parents need to treat the imaginary friend in the same way as the child, eg “Mrs Rabbit might say you don’t have to go to bed, but I am your mum and it is bedtime. Mrs Rabbit can come if you like”.
If your child plays happily with others and enjoys doing things with you and other children there is not likely to be any problem. If the child continues to choose the friend very often rather than doing things in the real world it is helpful to have a look at what is going on in his life and think about ways to help him enjoy doing real things as well.
What you can do
Here are some ways you can respond to your child’s imaginary friend.
- Let your child take the lead in how you respond. If it is a private relationship and the child wants you to stay out of it follow that lead. If you are asked to join in the play then do so. Usually you will be asked to make room for the friend in different ways such as providing a seat in the car, not sitting on the friend in a chair and maybe providing things like a cup or plate for the friend.
- While accepting the way your child wants you to act towards the friend it is helpful if you don’t get too involved and take over or add your own ideas to the story. It helps your child to work out what is real and what isn’t if you stay grounded in the real world most of the time. If you take over or add to the story you are taking over your child’s need to create her own story.
- If the friend is always to blame when the child does something wrong it will be helpful to take it out of a “blame” situation. For example if the child says his magic bunny spilt the milk you could say that mistakes are to learn from and that you will help him to clean up the mess for the bunny.
- As your child gets older try to provide lots of enjoyable experiences with real children and real things so the friend will gradually not be as interesting or attractive as the real world, and will disappear.
- Remember that being three or four years old in an expanding world can be scary and that by having a friend to help him through this time your child is being both resourceful and creative.