Many children develop imaginary friends during their early childhood years. This can be seen as an indication of your child's developing imagination. Imaginary friends form a part and parcel of your child's life. Adults must understand that these imaginary friends and the friendship that your child develops with them are as important as real friends. These imaginary friends must be welcomed and given just as much acknowledgement as real friends. An interesting aspect of your child's imaginary friends is that they need not always be human beings, like his real friends. These imaginary friends can be his dolls or stuffed toys.
According to certain studies, first-borns have the benefit of exploring their imagination more than their younger siblings. Younger siblings are often exposed to more reality than imagination as they grow up seeing the activities of the elder ones. However, some other studies contradict this. According to Marjorie Taylor, author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them , 65 percent of all children have imaginary friends at some point in their young lives. Imaginary friends are not solely formed by either children who are first-borns or who have no siblings. Jerome Singer who with research scientist Dorothy Singer wrote The House of Make-Believe: Children's Play and the Developing Imagination says "Imaginary friends is not the exclusive property of the 'only' child, the isolated, the ill, or the handicapped."
Imaginary friends form as children step further into pretend play and they often last for just about two to three years. Imaginary friends usually develop when the child is three years old and get “killed” when he is about five years old. At times, imaginary friends last beyond five years of age. Also during these years, children are usually not able to distinguish between fantasy and reality very well. Often parents are surprised when they talk to children about their imaginary friends. Like real friends, these imaginary friends often have a name and personality.
How do imaginary friends help your child?
Children at this age, are trying to find out for themselves the difference between right and wrong. Children also love pleasing their parents by trying to do what is expected of them. Having an imaginary friend helps the child to navigate through this phase without feeling overwhelmed.
Here are a few of the reasons children make use of their imaginary friends.
- Imaginary friends may help the child overcome his loneliness or boredom.
- Imaginary friends help the child take control of his emotions. Imagination can help your child attribute his negative traits such as lying, selfishness and so on to an imaginary friend.
- Imaginary friends help the child face fewer limitations and frees him from restrictions.
- Imaginary friends help your child to belong to the group he is comfortable with or desires to belong to.
- Imaginary friends can help your child overcome his fears or anger. Creating an imaginary friend called Waggy Doggie that always stays close to him can help him overcome his fear of dogs.
- Imaginary friends can help your child to be another person altogether (male or female).
- Imaginary friends help your child act good in front of his parents. He uses these friends to avoid getting into trouble by blaming them for any mistakes he has done.
- Imaginary friends can help your child to be imaginative, develop better vocabularies and better ability to entertain themselves.
- Imaginary friends allow your child to act as a “boss” to them and can help him develop leadership qualities.
- Imaginary friends allow your child to explore all aspects of his personality.
- Imaginary friends help your child to cope with a change in his daily life, in acquiring a new skill, and handling stressful situations.
- Imaginary friends help your child have a private life that does not involve adults.
- Unlike real friends, imaginary friends always listen to and support your child without finding fault with him. Moreover he is “special” and belongs only to your child.
Can imaginary friends be harmful?
Listening to your child's interactions and observing him play with his imaginary friends can help you learn more than you knew about your child. Thus imaginary friends are most often beneficial. However, imaginary friends can be a cause of concern if your child sticks to only them and refuses to actively participate or play with real peers around him. You may also want to watch out for situations when he always uses imaginary friends to escape from situations. Some ways parents can deal with imaginary friends in such instances are:
- Make your child aware that you respect his imaginary friends just like him. Tell him why you want him to have real friends and their advantages.
- Help your child make friends by setting up a play date with a couple of friends who are neither too aggressive nor overwhelming. Do not force him to play with them, but do provide regular opportunities to be with them and interact with them.
- If you ask your child his views on something and he insists on asking imaginary friends about it, tell him that you will ask the friend after knowing his own views about it.
- Do not shout at your child if he tries to hide behind imaginary friends when you introduce him to a real one. Instead tell him why you think he should play with them.
- If your child uses imaginary friends to get out of situations such as clearing a mess, tell him to show his friend Bunny how to clear the mess by setting himself as an example.
- Sometimes your child may ask you to do something for his imaginary friends. This can be something like opening the door. Tell your child that you would like to do so, but his friend would rather like it if your child did it for him. This way you can also help your child enhance his skills.