Caregivers’ Tips for Handling Imaginary Friends

By | November 2, 2013

Children with imaginary friends are fairly common, and these friends can be as real to them as a flesh-and-blood sibling, often even more beloved, because they are the child’s best friend too. The average age for children to develop imaginary friends is about 3 to4 years of age, once social interaction skills and imagination develop. Many parents find it worrying that their child is talking to an imaginary friend, some view it as a negative remark on their parenting abilities, and some will try to punish the child to prevent him or her from seeming ‘crazy’. However it is important to understand the reasons for imaginary friends appearing.


Children with Imaginary Friends

It is not always true that single children create imaginary friends as companions. Children with imaginary friends create them for a number of reasons, and as the real world begins to increasingly take over, the friend will disappear or fade away. Having an imaginary friend means that your child is imaginative and creative, not necessarily lonely. Also, being three or four years old in the world can be intimidating for many children and an imaginary friend can help them deal with the new stimulus. Punishing your child for it will only serve to make them retreat further into their own private world with their friend and not tell you about it.

Why Children Have Imaginary Friends

Given here are some of the most common reasons for children to invent imaginary friends:

  • Companionship: this can happen even if the child is one amongst siblings but feels left out or feels the need to have a friend of their own
  • Imaginary friends are a way of dealing with an overdose of new stimulus and help in absorbing it all
  • Socialization: children often invent friends to practice their social skills on if they need more than they get
  • Imaginary friends for good children are usually the ones who are blamed for ‘accidents’, and get up to all the mischief that the child himself would like to do
  • Traumatic situations like divorce, death, moving, separation etc can give birth to an imaginary friend to help deal with it
  • Young children often feel overwhelmed by the world and all the people in it who control their lives; imaginary friends who are easily led and a whole private world of their own are a reaction to this

Remember, these are not the only reasons a child invents an imaginary friend, and you’ll know your own child and his or her reasons best.

Dealing With an Imaginary Friend

The best way to deal with your child’s imaginary friend is to accept it as part of growing up. Your child will grow out of it soon and move towards socializing with real children, and a smooth transition can be possible. Showing acceptance to your child’s imaginary friend shows your child that you respect his or her feelings and will make your child trust you. Showing acceptance also means involving the invented friend in games or discussions, or making space for it, sometimes even laying a place at the table or kissing it good night.

One way of turning this into a learning activity for your child is to encourage your child to perform simple tasks for the imaginary friend such as serving food, making a bed or teaching it nursery rhymes or alphabets. However, be careful not to add your own creativity to the stories or games played by your child and the friend. Your child has created this friend to allow him or her to develop creativity and imagination and will not benefit with you leading the way.

When Imaginary Friends Become a Nuisance

While imaginary friends can help children deal with a number of developmental issues, sometimes parents find it very difficult to manage a child and an invented friend who both get up to mischief. Disciplining an imaginary friend who is blamed for unruly behavior can be beyond the scope of normal parenting activities. A few tips to deal with them:

  • Just like your child, an imaginary friend can be scolded. Tell your child you don’t mind that the friend caused an accident, but that you and your child must help the friend clean up.
  • Help your child differentiate between the real and the imagined world by remaining in the real world and providing an anchor yourself.
  • If at all your child begins to complain about the imaginary friend becoming malicious or injuring your child, you should consult a doctor for help.

The process of socialization is a natural one and will happen in time. Help your child meet other children and interact with them so that his or her interest stays riveted in the real world, and the influence of the created world lessens.

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