Having imaginary friends as a child is common in over 65% of the world’s population. In fact, they are most common and would affect a child’s behavior the most during the ages of 3 to 11 years old. During this time, we might find ourselves confused and at a lost to what we will react to our kid’s actions.
But do not fret or worry. It is perfectly fine to ask for answers when we do not know what to do – after all, we are all in a constant journey of parenting with our community of parent-learners. We are with you on this. That is why in this article, we will expand our understanding about this normal phenomenon among children when they are in their creative stage of transferring their thoughts from concrete to abstract.
Why does my child have an imaginary friend?
For most kids, imaginative friends serve different purposes. Imaginary friends allow your child to explore a make-believe world that they either created all by themselves or are part of the stories that they come across with while reading or watching movies. After all, this is a manifestation of a stage of development in their brain when they begin to be creative and imaginative. But as to why they exist in the minds of our children, there can be several reasons.
Imaginative friends listen to and support your child. When we are busy working or when we need to take time to care for ourselves and other members of the family, imaginative friends stay with our children to listen to their thoughts and even provide emotional support even when we are unaware of it.
They provide unlimited time and energy for play. Unlike parents who need to rest and friends who need to go back home to eat dinner, imaginary friends offer unlimited time and energy to play with our kids.
They tend to have abilities that your child cannot do. Imaginary friends come in all forms, shapes, and sizes. If you listen closely to your child’s stories, you will also discern that imaginary friends have distinct personalities and powers. When your child’s imaginary friend is doing tasks that are not safe for a child to copy, you can remind your child gently that people have different powers – and it is not safe for us to copy the powers of others. It is enough to appreciate it, and in the process of safely observing our friends, we can also find our unique powers.
On the other hand, we would also hear our child tell us stories about their imaginary friends doing things that they cannot do, such as eating sweets non-stop without getting a toothache, having a fridge that doesn’t run out of food, or staying underwater for hours without the need to breathe. Stories like this tell us that our children is projecting their playful hopes to their imaginary friends.
Imaginary friends accept your child unconditionally. Imaginary friends do not find fault with your child. They also don’t judge or scold your child as much as other people do. This is another reason for your child to find them so appealing and pleasant to spend time with.
They are special because they belong exclusively to your child. Remember that children in the age of 3-11 years old may still be in the period where they feel that they are the center of the world whether or not their expression of this is overt or subtle. That is why having an imaginary friend that solely belongs to them feeds their need for the constant attention that they cannot get from other people.
What should I watch out for?
There have been several misconceptions about imaginary friends, and for a long while psychologists have branded them as detrimental to a child’s development of social skills. However, it has been found out that for some children, the company of imaginary friends actually help them in developing communication skills such as storytelling and persuasion.
Another misconception is that kids who have an imaginary friend tend to be more intelligent later in life. Sadly, there is no conclusive evidence among researches that shows this is true. What have been found out by researchers, however, is how having an imaginary friend improves perspective-taking among children. Dr. Paulra Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, says that children who have imaginary friends are more skilled in seeing things from another person’s point of view. She also added that this socio-emotional skill will help them greatly in developing healthy relationships in and outside their home.
Aside from these common misconceptions, another thing to watch out for is the way your child talks to or responds to their imaginary friend. This will tell you a lot of their feelings and their thought process even without asking them about it straight out. It will also give you rich insights about your child’s inner world, fears, likes, dislikes, and their interpretation about the tangible world around them.
Watch out for instances when your child is exhibiting rude or malicious behavior because he or she claims that this is what his or her imaginary friend does. This kind of modeling may be a cause of another underlying issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible, especially when you know that your child has suffered a traumatic event in the past.
Another red flag is when your child shifts the blame to his or her imaginary friend. When this happens, it is best to firmly remind your child that whatever actions their imaginary friend does is also their responsibility, then follow it up with appropriate consequences. An imaginary friend is still an existence that your child cares about, but instances like this can also teach your child a lot about taking responsibility and being accountable for his or her actions.
Lastly, watch out for instances when your child would prefer hanging out with his or her imaginary friend rather than play with other children. This may be a prompt for you to look into their experiences of the social world. Is there any chance that they are being bullied? Was there an unpleasant experience that they went through with peers that you are not aware of?
We want to know because we care.
As parents, we want the best for our children, even if it means that we also have to deal with their imaginary friends that we cannot see. It might be alarming at first, especially when we cannot recall in our childhood days if we also had imaginary friends, but remember that this is just a part of our children’s development. There is not clear cut method that will tell us the step-by-step process of how to go about this phase, but we can rely on the sound experiences of our co-parents and our own parenting principles to guide our actions.
Just remember: It is okay to ask for help. Glad to be with you in this parenting journey!
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