What a made-up friend teaches you about your child.
Have you ever overheard your child having a conversation in her room only to find there’s no one else there? Children host tea parties, pretend to land on the moon and share their secrets with invisible companions. Their imaginary friends help keep them safe in the dark and commiserate with them when they’re sent to their room. And while most children have an imaginary friend at some point, parents often question this relationship.
Are there benefits to a child having an imaginary friend? Does an invisible comrade indicate an overly active imagination? How will peers react if a child mentions his imaginary friend? Knowing what this relationship means to a child gives a parent insight into his imagination and feelings.
Many parents find it surprising that a child as young as 2-years-old can create an imaginary friend largely because of his limited communication skills and vocabulary. Imaginary friends are easier to identify when a preschooler won’t let you sit in the place set for his new buddy. Children begin to experiment with and express their burgeoning social and communication skills as they interact with imaginary pals. When Sherry Moore attended a birthday party her 4-year-old daughter Jessica hosted for her imaginary friend, Sherry realized that her daughter was modeling many of her social habits and behaviors. “She addressed us in the same manner that I do when we have guests over. She even used many of the same words and phrases that I do,” the mom of two shares.
Why an Imaginary Friend?
Former elementary school counselor and teacher Margarita Sanchez explains that many children bring their imaginary friends with them to day care, preschool or kindergarten. “An imaginary friend is like a pacifier or security blanket for a frightened child on the first day of school,” explains Sanchez, now the director of an early childhood development center. The relationship can help children transition through the fear of leaving home or entering new surroundings.
A preschooler who is uneasy about going to school may leave his imaginary friend behind to protect his toys from a sibling or to have a pal waiting for him when he gets home. “A child who knows his imaginary friend is sitting in the back of the classroom has the confidence to make a new friend,” offers Sanchez. “Eventually a child becomes secure in his new classroom or environment and his imaginary friend fades to a fond memory.”
These make believe relationships help children channel stress and develop language and communication skills. They help children struggling to define boundaries with a sibling or peer develop the confidence to express themselves. Children learn how to express anger, sorrow, sadness and frustration by venting to an imaginary pal. The ability to speak uninterrupted to an invisible friend helps him to learn to productively express himself and to avoid internalizing emotions.
When she first realized her 4-year-old son was interacting with an imaginary friend, Molly Kozak was confused. “At first it seemed creepy because I never realized my other two children had imaginary friends,” says Kozak. The youngest of three children, Molly’s son Christian would sit on his bed and flip through books attempting to read some of his favorite books to “Invisible Man.”
“I soon realized that this was his way of flexing his ability to make the choices his brother and sister wouldn’t give him the chance to,” says Kozak.
Finding a way to divulge that he’s actually scared of being alone in the dark, or that he wants the chance to choose what game to play is easily achieved for children with imaginary friends. “They feel they have something that is very precious to them. They have control over their surroundings,” says Sanchez.
The Characteristics of an Imaginary Friend
A child often creates an imaginary friend in one of three images:
- The likeness of himself – This friend generally indicates that a child has a high level of self-confidence and self-esteem. A child may be looking for a playmate he feels equal to or may be proud of displaying his own accomplishments to. He demonstrates that by bragging about an imaginary friend’s abilities.
- The likeness of who he wants to be – This friend may be an astronaut or someone a child deems as well respected and knowledgeable. A child who is shy or uncertain how to communicate his feelings may do so through interaction with his imaginary friend or hero.
- The likeness of an ideal friend – This new relationship may provide someone to nurture for an only child or a playmate who consistently shares and gives a child with close-in-age siblings a turn. This is the most common type of imaginary friend because a child’s real life friends are often diverse and have their own unique personalities and characteristics. The ideal imaginary friend always agrees with your child, lets your chil
d go first and gives your child the freedom to make most of the choices.
Family therapist, Angela Morales, Psy.D., finds that most children outgrow an imaginary friend around the age of 6 or 7. “As a child matures and his independence and security grows, the need to relate to an imaginary friend fades. A child learns how to effectively communicate with his peers and no longer needs to practice with an imaginary friend,” Morales explains.
Imagination or Manipulation?
When she took her 4-and-a-half-year-old niece with her to run a few errands, Krista Gavin was surprised by her niece’s request. “When I let her pick out a small treat, she asked if she could also get one for her imaginary friend. I wondered if she was being cute by using her imagination, or if she was so smart that she was manipulating the situation in order to get two toys,” shares Gavin. While most children genuinely do want to include their imaginary friend in receiving treats, playing games or sharing in family experiences, a small percentage do recognize their imaginary friends give them opportunities to gain an advantage in situations.
“If you suspect your child may be manipulating a situation by using his imaginary friend, talking to both of them adds validity to his imaginative tendencies while setting the precedence that you will not tolerate the behavior,” offers Morales, a mother and grandmother. “When you help your child realize he cannot use his imaginary friend to manipulate a situation, he’ll learn that he needs to find a more productive manner to communicate his needs.” Talking about why your child wanted two servings of dessert or to avoid taking a bath teaches him how to discuss a situation without relying on his imaginary friend or attempting to manipulate the circumstances.
An imaginary friend gives a child the chance to experience a precious aspect of being young. Busy with hectic schedules, working and raising a family, adults often lose touch with the part of themselves that allow for the impetuous and imaginative fun that imaginary friends provide. “Understanding why he has an imaginary friend helped me to understand my son better,” says Kozak, “It’s also helped me remember a wonderful and innocent part of my own childhood.”
Gina Roberts-Grey is a mother, freelance writer and licensed clinical social worker.