All children have an imaginary friend, it is normal. In general, these characters are the fruit of children’s creativity and emotions. For parents, however, they are often a cause for concern because they don’t know what to do about it.
The imaginary friend created by the imaginative and vibrant mind of children appears between the ages of 2 and 4, when children begin to talk and relate to the outside world. Their existence depends on various reasons and as they appear, they just as simply vanish.
Parents of a child who has an imaginary friend usually worry. In reality these figures are part of the child’s emotional development and are the product of highly creative and sensitive minds. There is certainly no reason to worry.
Why do children make imaginary friends?
Parents are surprised to see their child playing and talking to himself. When asked for an explanation, the child calmly replies that he is a new friend. To many it seems funny, while others worry because they think: “My child has an imaginary friend!”.
A study by researchers Marjorie Taylor and Stephanie Carlson of the University of Oregon and Washington, respectively, found that 2 out of 3 children have an imaginary friend. Of the sample of children between the ages of 3 and 4 examined, 70% were only or firstborn children.
There is, however, no direct relationship between loneliness and the appearance of an imaginary child.
Children who have siblings also make imaginary friends. The same goes for children who grow up in environments surrounded by adults: some invent them, others don’t.
The imaginary friend helps the child express his feelings and improve his communication skills.
It can be a playmate, even if the child already has siblings to play with. The figures of imaginary friends can be the consequence of an emotional deficiency or difficulty.
What are the imaginary friends like?
Each child has his imaginary friend. Some are invisible, others are personified by your favorite doll or plush. They are the fruit of children’s imagination and emotions, so they will have their own name and personality.
Children know that these companions exist only in their imaginations. They can have the same age and physical characteristics, or they can be very small enough to fit in a bag to go to the park or to their grandmother together. They can also be animals, superheroes, or any other character loved by children.
Imaginary friends are allies of children. They help them cope with difficulties like parental divorce, the arrival of a baby brother, moving to a new school or town or city.
They change according to the wishes and needs of the children. They appear or disappear as the child develops and enhances his social skills.
The previously mentioned study found that 3 years after the end of the research, a third part of school-age children, i.e. around age 7, continued to have an imaginary friend. The imaginary friends had changed, but they continued to exist.
My child has an imaginary friend, how do I behave?
The first thing to do when a child has an imaginary friend is to stay calm. Until the age of 6 or 7 it is normal for a child to have a fictional partner.
There are also less common cases of adolescents with imaginary friends, but they are not considered suffering from pathological problems for this reason. So, stay calm and follow our simple tips for dealing with the situation.
Avoid ignoring or denying your child’s imaginary friend. Deal with the situation naturally, the same one you reserve for your child. You don’t have to scold him or force him to forget this character, but neither do you foment their relationship.
Just act naturally when it appears and when it isn’t there, don’t even mention it.
Meet your imaginary friend
According to Carlson and Taylor’s research, only 26% of parents knew their son had an imaginary friend. Let your child speak freely about his or her imaginary mate. Pay attention to what he says and how he says it. You have to “know” this character to be able to understand when there is a problem.
The imaginary friend is neither an excuse nor a justification
If your child has an imaginary friend and uses them to break rules or cause trouble, don’t let them.
When your child tries to evade a responsibility or justify a wrong behavior by placing the “blame” on the imaginary friend, without losing his temper and without making a fool of him, do not let him do it.
Only when your child is alone
Since this friend clearly exists only in your child’s imagination, games or conversations together are limited to times when the child has no one to play with or connect with. Insist on this point: the imaginary friend is okay only when the child is alone.
Encourage meeting real children
While imaginary friends are to be respected and tolerated, make sure your child meets up with other children to play and socialize.
You are not asking him to forget the imaginary mate, but you are helping him to relate to other real people. When the child develops his psychosocial skills, the imaginary friend usually disappears.
When should you worry?
In general, as we have said, there is no reason to worry if the child has imaginary friends. It is not about hallucinations or pathological problems. However, if one or more of the following occurs, there may be a more serious problem that requires the intervention of a psychologist or therapist:
- The child isolates himself and prefers to play with his imaginary friend rather than with other children. She only feels comfortable with him.
- There are symptoms such as excitement, loss of control, mental confusion or irritability when the imaginary friend “appears”.
- Note that the personality of the imaginary friend is aggressive or confrontational and causes the child to feel unwell or fearful.
- The child emulates the aggressive or confrontational personality of the imaginary friend.
If you spot some of these behaviors, it means that you have observed your child and know the relationship he has with his imaginary friend.
As always, we remind you that the time and attention you dedicate to your children are essential to identify problems of this type or more serious.