No matter how often parents hear that it is normal for children to have imaginary friends and no matter how cute they may find this common occurrence in other people’s kids, most find it a bit difficult when it is their own child who is conjuring up invisible companions. You may even find yourself wondering what the right course of action is when it comes to these pretend people.
When you think about it, an imaginary friend is often like an uninvited guest in your home. Your child brings this “person” home one day, and the next thing you know they are eating dinner with you, coming with you on family outings and sitting in your favorite chair. Children will often become distressed at the prospect of their friend not having a seatbelt in the car or being stepped on by a person who can’t see them. This can cause you to scratch your head in confusion because it seems your choices are either to shatter your child’s fantasy by telling him that his friend is not real or indulge in the fantasy and make it more real to him.
Know That They Know
The good news is most children with imaginary friends know that their friends are imaginary, even if it does not seem this way to you. A study done by Marjorie Taylor in 1999 indicated that, not only did most of her young subjects know that their imaginary friends were not real, but the children often would stop the researchers to make sure they were aware of this fact as well.
Children love to play and indulge in reverie, and while they are young they can do this without any social stigma being attached to them. Even children without imaginary friends will often pretend to shoot bad guys through the car window, take care of dolls or act out action sequences throughout the day, and nobody looks twice at them for doing so. They know that they are not really shooting dangerous lasers through the window and that their baby doll does not really need a bottle, but they act on these things anyway because it’s both fun and an essential part of the development process.
Understand That Imaginary Friends Can Be a Useful Part of Development
Imaginary friends often help children develop socially and emotionally. These friends allow kids to experiment with different social interactions and to cope with any troublesome feelings they may be having in a safe way. Furthermore, creating imaginary friends may offer children a sense of control. After all, their lives are pretty much created for them by their parents. In a pretend world, with a pretend person that allows them to call the shots, children can try their hand at creating and controlling.
Realize That Kids Really Don’t Want You to Get Involved
While kids might want you to play along from a distance by setting a place at the table or not sitting on their imaginary friend, they do not wish for anyone to take over their story. Usually, kids want to be the only one that can see their imaginary friends. If someone else claims to be able to see or hear the friend, it will sometimes upset the child and make him feel that his creation is no longer his own. Kids also rely heavily on parents for their sense of reality, so if you jump into the fantasy realm with them they have no one to count on to stay grounded.
Even with some perspective on imaginary friends, the answer to whether or not to engage them is still not cut and dry. There is a fine line to toe in this situation. In most cases it’s best to accept the friend, within reason. You don’t have to rearrange your life for this uninvited guest. If the imaginary friend is in your chair, it’s perfectly fine for you to tell your child that his friend will have to move and follow the same rules about chairs that everyone else does. If your child is upset that there is no seatbelt for his friend, you can tell him that he and his friend will just have to share one. Basically, don’t jump into the fantasy with both feet, but don’t deny its existence either.
Don’t be afraid to ask your child questions about his friend. You may gain some insight into your child this way. If your child is fearful or sad, he may not be able to talk about it, or even be aware of it, but he may be able to give these feelings to his imaginary friend to handle. Sometimes, the friend may also have traits your child wishes he could have.
Above all, have fun with your new transparent guest. Soon enough, the imaginary friend will move out and your child will outgrow it, along with so much else that comes and goes with early childhood. Most likely, your child will even forget about this friend when he gets older. For this reason, you may want to have him draw a picture of his friend that you can show him later. Your imaginary tenant is sure to become a treasured memory in the future.