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Children's imaginary friends

23 August
Posted by:
Michael Grose

Imaginary pals come in all shapes and forms. They may be make-believe people or an object such as a teddy bear, who takes on human characteristics. They may be single or a whole family. Sometimes the imaginary friend changes as a child grows older.

Having an imaginary friend doesn’t mean that a child is lonely. Kids with made up friends have been identified as creative, imaginative and emotionally responsive.

There are plenty of benefits in having a fictional companion. They allow kids to develop their conversational skills, and to practise getting along with someone else. Having to get along with a fictitious character encourages children to better understand others, which can make them more responsive socially.

Imaginary friendships also give children a measure of control at a stage when adults are calling the shots in their lives. Sometimes kids can act out through an imaginary pal who becomes the ‘naughty’ one, while they remain the ‘good’ child.

Having imaginary friends is a healthy part of childhood, but it can cause problems when the fantasy world collides with the real world.

Here are some examples:

Talking through imaginary friends
‘I’ll have to see what Mr. Bear thinks.’ If your child constantly consults with their fictitous friend, even asking you to speak through their friend, then you need to be diplomatic. ‘I’d like to hear what you have to say, not from Mr. Bear’ maybe your best approach.

Blaming imaginary friends
Imaginary friends make great scapegoats when kids get into trouble. If you hear that “Mr. Bear left the mess in the kitchen” then let your child know that while their friend may have made the mess, he or she needs to clean it up. And perhaps, Mr. Bear can help!

Avoiding things
Some children will use imaginary friends to avoid doing things they don’t want to do. ‘Mr. Bear says I don’t have to go bed.’ If it only happens once in a while then it’s a bit of fun. It can become wearing if it’s a continuous avoidance strategy. If that’s the case, try the direct approach. ‘Mr. Bear could be right. But I’m your mum and I know it’s bedtime. Mr. Bear can join you if he likes.’

Getting you involved
Sometime kids will involve you in fantasy games with their imaginary friends. You may have to make room for their friend in the car, provide a cup and plate at the dinner table or leave room for them on the couch. Make allowances for your child’s imaginary mate but don’t let the fictitous friend take over or add your ideas to the fantasy.

By staying grounded in the real world, yet making allowances for their fictitious friends you can help your child work out what’s real and what’s fantasy. Also it’s important that the story kids create belongs to them.

Children usually stop playing with make-believe friends when they are ready. Research suggests that imaginary friends are most likely to be around for several months, but could be a feature of your child’s life for up to three years.

However, if your child’s fictious pal lingers longer than you think is healthy, or your child has experienced a traumatic event and the behaviour of the imaginary friend is hurtful, malicious or completely out of bounds it may be worth consulting a GP or a health practitioner.

For more ideas to help you raise happy kids and resilient young people visit
Michael Grose

  • children
  • fantasy
  • friend
  • imaginary
  • made-up
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