Almost on a daily basis, in our clinical practice we meet parents who are helped in bringing up their children by their own parents. We also meet children who share their experience, play and activities with their grandparents. We should bear in mind that most children experience their first relationships and connections in their families with their primary carers or persons who take care of them. Such experience is very important because the child transfers it to his/her future experience in adolescence and adulthood. Thus parents transfer their own parents' experience into their relationship with their children.
It is not rare that, while their child is playing, parents hear him/her child talking as if playing with someone. Children often talk with themselves or with their toys. That conversation may be aimed at giving life to characters in the game, and sometimes it may be a conversation between the child and an imaginary friend. Imaginary friends may be invisible or they may be dolls or other toys which are visible.
Children imagine them and ascribe them characteristics of living beings. Imaginary friends occur in about 25% of pre-school children, most often at the age of 3 to 4. Children play with them, talk to them, discuss, involve them in everyday activities and take them to different places. Some children will keep them for several months, some for years.
“He was everything I needed because his entire character had been molded by my deepest wants and desires. He was my rock when I cried, my playmate when I laughed, and my hero when I needed to imagine that one existed for me.”
R. E. Goodrich, Dandelions: The Disappearance of Annabelle Fancher
Many children say that they understand their imaginary friends are a product of their imagination, but that is not always the case. At their pre-school age, children still do not have the ability to make the difference between imagination and reality and while playing roles with their imaginary friends they may believe those friends are real, just like their peers. It is also important to bear in mind there is some contribution of various stories children listen from their earliest days from their carers. These stories include many invented characters, like fairies, spirits, wizards, gremlins, super-heroes, monsters, witches and similar.
Imaginary friend does not indicate psychopathological deviations in the child
Parents are often worried when they notice their child has an imaginary friend. However, several researchers have come to the conclusion that having an imaginary friend is not an indicator of a psychopathological deviation in the child, but a constituent part of the child’s development. Children who have imaginary friends often have better social skills which they practice in interaction with them, which is one of the reasons why they have better cooperation with children and adults, than those children who to not have imaginary friends. Most often single children and first-borns have imaginary friends, and they are prone to fantasizing and imagination and ascribing magical explanations to some situations.
Studies show that girls more often have imaginary friends at their pre-school age, while both boys and girls equally have them when they start school. Both girls and boys prefer the same sex imaginary friends and generally they are very much like them. At their pre-school age, girls more often have invisible imaginary friends to take care of (e.g. babies) while boys ascribe human characteristics to their toys, adventurous and active imaginary friends (e.g. super heroes) imitating their imaginary friends to communicate with them.
What is imaginary friends’ function?
Imaginary friends can help children in coping with their worries and problems, feelings of loneliness, helplessness and abandonment, or even with bigger life changes, such as the death of a close person, the birth of a sibling, parental divorce, or similar. E.g. child’s friend, the dragon can help him/her fall asleep by chasing all scary things and monsters away and will protect the child. An imaginary friend supports the child in various situations, like school activities, doing some tasks and similar, so they are easier for the child and the child is more motivated. An imaginary friend can also help the child in coping with a feeling of inferiority in peer-relationships, because the child feels equal to the imaginary friend. The imaginary friend is often responsible for both appropriate and inappropriate behaviours. E.g. before tidying his/her room as required by parents, the child can say that s/he has to first see if the imaginary friend agrees with that, so the child has an excuse for not wanting to do that at that moment. Imaginary friends can also fulfil the need for fun and enable the child to practice some situations which s/he cannot practice in reality, as well as to practice gender roles which are different from common stereotypes.
When do imaginary friends disappear?
Most imaginary friends disappear in situations when children are surrounded by real friends and when social activities become more important. Sometimes children spontaneously lose interest in their imaginary friends, the same way as they can lose interest for some toy. In such situations they can turn to other activities or replace the old imaginary friend with a new one with different characteristics.
What can parents do?
Children often say that their relationship with their imaginary friend is equally important as the relationships they have with real persons or peers. Since imaginary friends are that important to children, here are some guidelines to help you relate to your child:
1. Accepting the imaginary friend
Do not reassure your child that the imaginary friend does not exist. It is important that the child sees you accept him/her and the emotions about the friend. The child will not feel rejected and you will show that s/he is important.
2. Meeting the imaginary friend
When the child tells you about his/her imaginary friend, ask to get to know that imaginary friend. You can ask about the friend’s looks, what s/he likes or does not like. Imaginary friends may represent your child’s interests, fears, desires and worries. Getting to know imaginary friends helps you to get to know your child
3. Including the imaginary friend in everyday activities
If your child expresses a wish to include his/her imaginary friend in everyday activities, it is important to talk about possible ways of inclusion. E.g. if the friend is to have his/her place at the table, if s/he goes to excursions with the family, etc.
4. Developing the feeling of responsibility
As mentioned before, children tend to ascribe responsibility for their behaviour to their imaginary friend. Teach your child that s/he is responsible for his/her behaviours and the consequences of such behaviours. If your child tells you his/her friend left toys all over the place, you may say it is alright, but they need to tidy up together.
5. Opportunities for interaction with peers
Besides having an imaginary friend it is important that the child is given opportunities to spend time with his/peers and participate in real social interactions. Skills acquired in interaction with imaginary friends can be applied and additionally practised in social relationships with other people.
6. Asking for professional opinion
If the imaginary friends limit your child’s interactions with peers, or participation in usual developmentally appropriate activities, like playing and spending time with friends, school activities and tasks, etc., or if you have dilemmas about what is appropriate for your child’s developmental level, we recommend that you ask for a professional opinion.
Written by: Petra Šimčić, psychologist