Children have very wondrous imaginations. For instance, I once took care of a five-year-old who told me he had a big brother who was a pilot and flew an airplane. I thought he was serious. I asked him where his brother is now. He made a motion of a flying airplane with his hands and suddenly it went down and crashed. “Kaboom!” He said. So that was the end of the imaginary airplane. I still didn’t know if that was an actual brother or an imaginary one. I asked the parents later about this. And they told me that he has an imaginary brother because he always wanted a big brother and he loved airplanes.
Is it normal for my child to have an imaginary friend?
Children having imaginary friends is very normal during the early years up until about age five or six. This often occurs with an only child. It is perfectly normal to have imaginary playmates, animals or people. In fact, children who go through the phase of having an imaginary friend reflect intelligence, curiosity and creativity. Therefore, consider imaginary friends as one natural phase of the child’s development.
How do I deal with my child’s imaginary friend? Do I need to do something to help my child get through this stage?
You don’t have to do anything in particular to deal with your child’s imaginary friends. Children generally give up their imaginary friends when they have had that aspect of their curiosity satisfied. The child will sort this out naturally.
However, do not play into their fantasy—do not talk with the imaginary friend. Parents must not be tempted to interact with the imaginary friend. It is very confusing children because they know that parents and adults should know better, even though to them the fantasy is very real. Under no circumstances should a parent scold or punish a child for having an imaginary playmate.
When a parent addresses the imaginary friend or tries to engage the imaginary friend, this confuses the child. The child knows that a parent is not supposed to have an imaginary friend. So, on the one hand, they recognize the adult as the gatekeeper to reality; but, on the other, the child wants the parent to engage in play. We have to be careful not to get caught up in a child’s imagined reality.
How does a child give-up an imaginary friend?
Sometimes the imaginary friend has an accident and the child then no longer has that friend to deal with. It is normal for the imaginary friendship to end in some sort of catastrophe or disappearance.
Is there any way to play pretend with my child?
It is alright, however, to have a little pretend play with your child if you limit it and acknowledge what you are doing. For example, you can say, “Alright I will pretend with you for a little while. I will pretend that I see your imagery friend.” Then go ahead and engage in a little pretend play. Be sure to make it short and simple. After a few minutes, say to your child, “I am finished pretending with you. You go ahead and play and I will continue to do some of my work.” If the child persists, say, something like, “I know you wish that I could see your imagined friend, but I cannot.”
When does having an imaginary friend mean there’s a problem?
Parents may be concerned if the child continues to have imaginary friends that end in violent accidents or situations, such as, drowning in the bathtub or crashing in a car. This may indicate that the child has a fear: “Will I drown in the bathtub? Will our car crash and I will die?” They may have seen something on the TV, in a movie or on the internet. As a parent, assure your child that this is not going to happen to them: “I will keep you safe and if you are worried about having an accident yourself, you can come and tell me about what you’re afraid of.”
Are imaginary friends useful to children in anyway?
Imaginary friends can also be helpful. For example, some children do not want to sleep in their own bed and they say,
“I can’t sleep because the monster keeps waking me up and I’m afraid. Please let me sleep with you or come and sleep with me.”
You can say to the child,
“Oh, it seems to me that you are afraid to be alone. If you imagine that the monster is here hiding in your closet, you can get him out. Say to the monster, ‘Get out of my closet! Get out of my room!’ You can pretend to kick him all the way out the door to the outside and say, ‘You cannot come back to my house and my room!’ I can go with you if you want to do that even though I can’t see the monster. Do you want me to help you?”
When is having an imaginary friend unacceptable?
It is unacceptable when a child continuously uses an imaginary friend either to get attention or to reflect a deeper problem. The parent needs to take note of this. When this imaginary playmate consumes too much of the child’s time and too much of the parent’s attention, it’s time to talk with the child about it. When that does not bring about a change, it may indicate a more serious problem.
Sometimes following a family tragedy such as someone’s illness or death, the child may create an imaginary person to take the missing person’s place. Talk with the child about it and clarify reality. There’s a different between an imaginary friend and a hallucination. Hallucination means the child actually sees or hears a person in his mind. This calls for professional attention. If it’s a serious problem, you will see other signals that the child is unable to cope with reality. Parents know their children better than anyone else does. You will know when your child is engaging in imaginary play with an imaginary friend and having a wonderful time. This is different from when a child becomes preoccupied with hallucinations, for example, waking in the night, screaming with fear, or telling the parent that someone is telling her to do something over and over. The latter situations call for help. As long as parents talk with their children, and observe them closely and play with them, they will know the difference between a real problem and an imaginary one.
· Talking to the imaginary friend
· Pretending to interact with the child’s fantasy
· Admonishing the child
· Reinforce reality
To help children learn the difference between fantasy and reality, the parent has to be the teacher and must avoid talking with or pretending to have any communications with the imaginary friend.
When a parent notices the child is talking with an imaginary friend, the parent can simply say:
“Oh, so you have an imaginary friend. Sometimes it’s fun to pretend.”
Or, the parent can say something like:
“You go ahead and pretend that George is your imaginary friend, but I cannot see George or talk with George or play with George.”
Some children even want their imaginary friend to sit in a chair at the table during meal time. The parent can say,
“I know you wish that your pretend friend can be at the table. But, we cannot see this imaginary friend. So, if you want to imagine that you asked him to sit in another part of the room while we eat that would be ok. But, we cannot pretend with you.”
If the child says,
“Mom, you tell him to go sit over there.”
As the mother, you must not play into that.
If you do, the child will be confused because the child knows that adults don’t have imaginary friends. Nonetheless, the child may test reality by trying to get you to join-in.