There are many things that parents concern themselves with once their kids start developing their creativity more and more, but one that is often not talked about or has parents perplexed and confused about is our kids’ imaginary friends.
Acknowledging a kid’s imaginary friend is one thing, but to go as far as playing with them as your toddler has instructed is something I know we all struggle with. How do we handle that? Is having an imaginary friend normal? Could having an imaginary friend be an indication of something? If so, what is it an indication of?
What’s an Imaginary Friend
My 4-year-old son once told me he had a new friend named Jaggery. “Interesting name,” I thought to myself, thinking Jaggery was a new boy at school. It turns out that Jaggery is a sparkly blue dragon who lives next door to us and loves nothing more than munching on little girls and broccoli!
My son goes into great detail when talking about his dragon friend and describes his adventures on a daily basis.
Personally, I’m not too worried about my kid’s imaginary friend, but I know there are many parents out there whose kids have imaginary friends and might be a bit concerned.
So we asked clinical psychologist Rachael Tan for her expert opinion on this subject.
“Imaginary friends” are fictional characters — for example, people or animals — that children make up and then interact with for the purpose of companionship. A kid’s imaginary friend can exist both purely in their mind or be an actual physical object like a stuffed bunny.
What It Means to Have an Imaginary Friend
Kids having imaginary friends is so common that 65% of kids will most likely grow up having one. A common misconception that parents have is that having imaginary friends is a sign of a high IQ. Unfortunately, no study in existence can confirm that. It can develop their creativity but to achieve intelligence, your child might need more than an imaginary friend.
The good news is that having one is not a sign of a mental health problem. All it is is your kid being a kid.
When Do Kids Start Having Imaginary Friends
Although not all children will create imaginary friends, children who make imaginary friends can develop these friendships as soon as they pick up enough language to allow them to engage in some form of interaction with their imaginary friends.
Image Source: iStock
Why Do Kids Create Imaginary Friends
Some kids have imaginary friends for a variety of reasons:
1) Imaginary friends are fun
When children have imaginary friends, their creativity and imagination are at work, and it’s plain fun for them when they explore this side. They get to choose what their imaginary friends look like, how they sound, how they move, and how they play. And, even for us adults, if we were given that freedom, we’d have fun too.
2) Creating a friend is a way to fill a gap
One of the many things that parents cannot control is how many friends our kids will get someday. It hurts our hearts because as adults, we know what it feels like to not have enough friends or support. But, for kids, it’s pretty simple. If they don’t have enough friends, they just make up one, ergo the purpose of imaginary friends.
3) Having an imaginary friend is having a sense of control
It’s not a coincidence that kids start conjuring imaginary friends at a time they’re already being taught actions and consequences. Having an imaginary friend helps take them out of that disposition and allows them more control over the things they do – even their parents. When they ask their parents to leave a seat for their imaginary friends, for instance.
Now, don’t be concerned, because we are not saying your child is going to grow up becoming manipulative. Your kids are not aware that they are taking some control over their lives by having imaginary friends. So, let them be, and play along to help your child appreciate some autonomy too.
What Are the Benefits of Kids Having Imaginary Friends
Having age-appropriate imaginary friends can help children in many ways, including:
1) Developing their language and creative abilities
2) Allowing a safe space to act out make-believe situations and practice possible real-life situations like cleaning up some milk that the friend has spilt
3) Providing companionship when the child has to spend time on their own
4) Giving parents or adults opportunities to explore and assist with difficulties and/or stressors in the child’s life. For example, if a child is constantly bullying their imaginary friend, this may be an indication that the child is personally struggling with issues of bullying.
5) Improving their creativity and self-esteem
When Imaginary Friends Are Trouble and How to Handle Them
At appropriate times, such as during play, it’s perfectly fine to go along with your kid’s imaginary friend and enter into your kid’s creative world. However, there are also times when it’s best to avoid such interactions.
When your child blames their imaginary friend for a wrongdoing
Most children recognise that their imaginary friends are make-believe and do not really exist. So at times, they may use their imaginary companions as “scapegoats” to get out of trouble because they think there is no way to prove whether their friend is to blame or not.
You can deal with such situations by remaining calm and informing your child that you both know their imaginary friend could not have done the deed. After this, dish out the usual consequence for the inappropriate act your child has committed.
When your child refuses to do what they’re told
Children can also use their imaginary companions to make excuses for not doing what they are told. A child, for example, says, “Lisa needs me to help her make a cake so I can’t do my homework right now.”
Image Source: iStock
The best way to address this problem is to use the “First-Then” rule with your child. Respond by saying, “First you need to do your homework, and then you can help Lisa with her cake.”
If your child still does not do as you have asked, implement the consequence for not obeying an instruction as you normally would.
When your child can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality
Things can quite get out of hand when you notice your child being affected by their imaginary friend more than they should, like being distressed over something they think their friend had done, doing harmful things because their imaginary friend said so, and preferring a make-believe companion over real-life peers. If you notice these signs, call your child’s doctor or a counsellor.
To find out more about Rachael Tan and her practice, click here.
The advantages linked to kids having an imaginary friend certainly outweigh any disadvantages. It’s also good to keep in mind that your kid’s imaginary friend is a perfectly normal part of childhood and healthy development.
So parents, enjoy watching your child use his imagination and creativity while the phase lasts!
Does your child have an imaginary friend? Tell us all about it by leaving a comment.
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