As a clinical psychologist, I get the occasional parent asking what is “typical ” when it comes to their child to having an imaginary friend. Some films and books have turned nonexistent pals into the stuff of nightmares. However, the reality is that imaginative play is considered a major milestone of childhood development.
Think of imaginary friends as a complex expression of your child’s imagination. Typically, imaginary friends appear in preschool and early childhood and most times come and go without concern. Here are a few guiding principles in embracing this fun expression of your child’s imagination.
Follow your child’s lead. Don’t pretend like you can interact with your child’s imaginary friend as if it’s your own. Have your child be the interpreter. If he says you are stepping or sitting on his buddy, simply play along and move. This can give your child a sense of validation, independence and control while opening up an opportunity for you to learn more about your child.
Listen patiently and play along. By playing along and listening to the conversation between your child and their imaginary friend, you can learn a lot about what your child is thinking – fears, anxieties, questions, their developing sense of right and wrong or topics they might not normally share. Then you have an opportunity to reassure or support them. It’s okay if you want to listen quietly from the hallway, too. Some of the funniest and cutest things your kids will say will be spoken to nothing but air.
Taking the blame. “Friends” can also be accused of doing things if your child wants to avoid getting in trouble. If your child is blaming her imaginary friend for a broken flower pot, don’t confront the fact that this person doesn’t really exist. Instead tell her it doesn’t matter who made the mess, but that she will need to clean it up.
When to worry. Interactions with imaginary friends tend to wax and wane throughout the years of early childhood and according to the pace of a child’s intellectual development. If you are concerned this expression of imagination may be outside the bounds of typical development and/or is accompanied by other behaviors you are concerned about, you may want to consider contacting Nationwide Children’s Behavioral Health at 614-355-8080.
Ultimately, the presence of an imaginary friend or two is usually a good sign of normal child development. Most importantly, it’s an indication that your child is exercising her wonderful capacity for imagination and creativity.
Dr. Winkelspecht is a psychologist and clinical educator for Behavioral Health at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
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