Worried About Your Child's Imaginary Friend?
Here are 5 good reasons to welcome your kid's pretend pal to the family
When The New Yorker writer Adam Gopnick’s 3-year-old dreamed up an imaginary friend who was always too busy for her, Gopnick was struck by how much the antics of “Charlie Ravioli” mirrored his own too-busy life. As he wrote in a story for the magazine, Olivia was forever running into the unavailable Charlie, who was hopping into a taxi, promising to grab coffee someday and constantly canceling long-standing lunch plans.
“Olivia was playing at figuring out friendships, especially those friends who are always too busy for us, using what she saw around her,” says Wellesley College psychologist Tracy R. Gleason, PhD, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College whose research focuses on imaginary pals.
As many as 65 percent of children as old as age 7 have imaginary friends, according to psychologist and professor emeritus Marjorie Taylor, PhD, of the University of Oregon in Eugene. In the past, children’s imaginary companions made parents and even some researchers uncomfortable. But, says Taylor, in the last two decades studies have found imaginary friends can persist beyond early childhood in healthy, positive ways.
What an imaginary friend has to offer
Here are some ways an imaginary pal can enrich a child's development.
Gives her practice being a friend. For many children, imaginary companions create a relationship “and all the joys that come from interpersonal contact,” says Gleason. They’re a source of comfort and fun, she says, noting that research suggests kids with imaginary friends are more outgoing. “If anything, an imaginary friend is a sign your child loves pretend play and loves people,” says Gleason.
Teaches her to deal with negative emotions. Children use their imaginary companions to work out social issues and to express feelings such as disappointment, sadness and anger without retribution, Gleason says.
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Helps her understand others' perspectives. Research suggests youngsters with imaginary friends are better at "getting" other points of view. “Having such a friend shows very sophisticated thinking,” says psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, of Princeton, New Jersey. “These kids are very good at understanding how another person thinks or reacts and even feels, and the fact that they have created this from scratch is really amazing.”
Boosts social creativity. Children with imaginary friends are not more creative than kids who don’t have them, studies show. But when measuring creativity in terms of social interactions (rather than creativity alone), children who have imaginary friends score higher.
Allows her to navigate early adolescence. Some tweens and young teens still talk to their stuffies or pour their hearts out into a diary. Taylor’s team did a study of at-risk adolescents, kids whose teachers predicted they were headed for troubled adulthoods. She found about 10 percent had imaginary friends. The kicker? The at-risk kids with pretend pals graduated from high school, whereas the kids without them did not.
Making room for your child’s pretend pal
If your child has an imaginary buddy, treat the friendship with care and follow your child’s lead. Play along if your child invites you, but be careful not to take over (which may cause the “friend” to go underground or leave).
You may want to borrow your child’s imaginary friend, for example, to check in with her. “If you're wondering if your child is worried about something and she can’t seem to tell you, you might ask if her friend is worried,” Taylor says.
Rather than be concerned, enjoy it (secretly) when an invisible friend is naughty or blamed for bad behavior: Your child is learning to work out boundaries, Gleason says. But don’t allow the imaginary pal to disrupt your family life. For instance, if your child wants to set a place for her friend at the table and you’d rather not play along, Gleason suggests saying, “At this dinner your friend will have to eat with a pretend fork." Or even, "This is just a dinner for our family — can you meet your friend later?”
Be careful not to take over your child’s friend, though. Don’t manipulate or compare your child to her invisible companion. (Charlie likes peas; why don’t you?)
Of course, never tease or belittle your child for having an imaginary friend. If she’s frequently withdrawn, sad or unhappy, or her imaginary friend is violent, you might want to consult with an expert. Think of it as a window into your child’s mind.
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