How to Understand a Child’s Imaginary Friend

Many young children have an imaginary friend, someone who exists only in their mind. Although others go through their preschool years without using their imagination in this particular way, it is a normal part of early child development and an extension of symbolic play. The advantage of having an imaginary friend is that a child has full control over play situations. The child decides when to play with his friend and what they will play at together. Freed from relying on other children to be cooperative and pleasant to him, your child can do as he pleases with his imaginary friend, and no one can interfere with their game. This makes the imaginary friend all the more desirable.

Your child knows that this friend is not real. Children have usually passed through the imaginary-friend phase by the time they begin school; the peak age for this phenomenon is around four years. Imaginary friends can serve a number of purposes, including the following:

  • Security. An imaginary friend provides comfort and security in times of stress. When a child is under pressure, he can turn to this friend for support, and the friend will say what the child needs to hear. For instance, a child who is afraid to visit the dentist may be reassured when his imaginary friend tells him that he’ll be fine. And once he leaves the dental office, the friend can disappear until next time.
  • Company. Only children, or children with few friends of their own age, or children who live in an isolated area have a greater tendency to play with imaginary friends. The reason is obvious, what a lonely child cannot create in reality, he can create in fantasy. It is far better for a young child to engage in this sort of symbolic play activity than to sit around doing nothing at all, moping because he has no friends.
  • Communication. A child can be very subtle in communicat­ing information to adults, and the imaginary friend can be a useful mechanism to do this, especially when the child wants to say something that his parents may not want to hear. Telling his imaginary friend (within earshot of his par­ents) that he’s worried mom and dad will be angry when they discover his new toy is lost is one way to break the news gently to them!

In some instances, the friend may start to play too domi­nant a role in the child’s life, or the child retains this form of symbolic play long after other children of his age have grown out of it. When it gets to the point that the child’s day-to-day life is impaired by the presence of the “friend,” then it probably indicates that the child has a deeper emotional difficulty, of which the need for the imaginary friend is a symptom—for instance, if the child won’t go anywhere without his friend, if he absolutely insists an empty chair is left beside him at every meal so that his friend can sit down, if he says he is crying because his friend is unhappy. If this kind of thing happens with your child, look more closely at his life to see what could be troubling him.

Filed Under: Lifestyle & Personality


About the Author: Alan Kennon lives a very happy life with two kids and a lovely wife. He likes to share his life time experiences with others about how they can improve their lifestyle and personality.

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