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Understanding Your Kids’ Imaginary Friends

When I was three years old, my best friend was Brenda. Brenda was the perfect play pal, always willing to let me choose the game, never mean or nasty to me and, most importantly, she came and went as I wanted—because Brenda was my imaginary friend.

I cannot remember when she first “arrived,” or even when she left for that matter, but I do remember that Brenda was always there when I wanted her to be. One day my mother asked if I was playing with Brenda I told her that Brenda had gone home. I even gave her address and said I was not sure I ever wanted to play at her house.

I did not think about Brenda or the conviction of imaginary play until quite recently when my four-year-old godson went through a phase when he was no longer Daniel but alternately “Bob the Builder” or “Spiderman.”

Dr. David Erickson, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton, Canada and Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Alberta says this behavior of becoming a character is quite common in children as it allows them to step out of any given situation and to create their own reality. If I was not sure to whom I was speaking each day, I was soon notified as most of Daniel’s responses to something he did not want to do were “Don’t speak to me, I am Bob the Builder!” or when reprimanded, “I will put a web on you!”

Why do children have imaginary friends?

“Children develop imaginary friends to help deal with change or times of transition,” says Dr. Erickson. “These may include the birth of a new child in the family, a friend moving away, death of a relative, or starting school.” He says that in some situations a kid’s imaginary friends may develop as a way of exploring her world as it allows her to practice newly developing language and experiment with new roles.

Imaginative play gives children a sense of control over their surroundings—they can scold, praise, or remind their “friend” of things that need to be done and not feel threatened by any repercussions. Pretend friends allow kids to more comfortably express negative emotion, and they also help children deal with extended times being alone by themselves.

Which children are more likely to have imaginary friends?

It is quite common for children between the ages of three and five years to have an imaginary friend, and researchers at Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada say that between 40 and 65 percent of all children have imaginary friends at some point during childhood.

According to Dr. Marjorie Taylor, Ph.D., author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them and Professor and Head of Psychology at the University of Oregon, children with imaginary companions tend to be less shy than their peers and are better able to focus their attention and see things from another person’s perspective.

Studies at Yale University have shown that children who engage in imaginative play are usually either first-born or only children. Dr. Jerome L. Singer, who conducted much of the research, found that children with imaginary companions were more imaginative, had a richer, more varied vocabulary, an increased ability to show empathy for others, and were more able to entertain themselves.

This is certainly true of Daniel. He is the first-born and during his imaginary friend stage was an only child, started talking well before his first birthday, and is an articulate, happy child with a lively imagination. He has been a number of “people” over the last two years – Buzz Lightyear as well as Bob the Builder and Spiderman. Dr. Erickson feels that this attribution factor is for the most part healthy, especially or the three- to six-year age range as long as the child is, if necessary, disciplined for his character’s actions.

In fact, it was “Buzz” who shot the water pistol at the light switch and short-circuited the lights last year, leaving the house in darkness and Daniel crying. When we were able to fully establish what had happened, Daniel was adamant that Buzz was at fault, although this did not stop him from getting a stern lecture about the dangers of mixing water with electricity!

Dr. Taylor also found that the type of imaginary companion fell into different categories including ordinary child, magical child, baby, older person, animal (including a magical dolphin), superhero, enemy, and ghost, angel or presence.

What can parents do to help?

Dr. Erickson says that parents should allow the child to have their imaginary friends, neither ignoring nor drawing attention to them. “[Imaginary friends] provide an opportunity to become aware of some of the child’s needs. For example, a child who talks about a ‘friend’ not wanting to go out to play in the playground may be revealing his or her own fears about being with other children he or she doesn’t feel comfortable with. It is my belief that parents should never question the child as to the reality of their friend’s existence or bring it up when other people, particularly other children, are in attendance in the home.”

Suzie Milner, 28, had three imaginary friends called Do, Geeny, and Ted as a young child. She says “they were around for a couple of years” and that she used to play with them and chat with them for hours on the telephone. She adds that her parents actively encouraged her to talk and interact with them.

Dr. Erickson’s advice to parents is this: if the young child wants to set a place at the table for an imaginary friend, he should be allowed to do so. Taking this low key approach, the imaginary friend usually disappears within six months—typically when the child has dealt with his stress or change in his environment. Also, make sure the child has ample things to play with at home, especially play objects that call for imagination (blocks, paper bags, empty boxes, a pretend computer or cash register, modeling clay, etc.).

Imaginary friends are common for children between the ages of two and six, especially children who spend considerable time alone. If a child keeps her imaginary friend past age six or seven and into elementary school, doesn’t seem to have any friends, and spends a lot of time by herself, then parents might want to talk to school personnel and perhaps see a psychologist.

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