Whether it’s an alien from another planet, a stuffed teddy bear come to life or just a play pal from summer camp who lives far away during the school year, it’s very common for children to have imaginary companions in their lives.
In fact, a study by psychologists at the University of Washington and the University of Oregon found that, by age seven, 65 per cent of kids have had one.
And, according to parenting expert Alyson Schafer, they’re also completely normal. “Oh, the beauty of a young mind that’s still fresh and open and creative!” she told Global News.
“Play is the language of understanding for children. They learn through play and they’ll turn anything into play, if you give them the opportunity,” said Schafer.
For some kids, this could mean “typical” play activities, like building blocks or dolls. For other kids, their creativity is so strong that they create a brand new persona out of thin air.
“This is a creative choice that they make… they don’t need a physical object, much like a favourite stuffed bunny or a love blanket,” Schafer said.
“There’s nothing abnormal about it — it’s really brilliance, because they’re not constrained by other social norms.”
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Jillian Roberts, child psychologist and professor at the University of Victoria, agrees. “Kids are highly imaginative… one of the wonders of childhood,” she said.
According to Roberts, a child’s capacity for imagination increases a great deal in the pre-kindergarten years (roughly between the ages of two and four).
“It actually helps to eventually build the foundation for abstract thought, which comes to fruition in the tween to early-teen period of time,” said Roberts.
“Imaginary friends give [kids] an opportunity to practice their budding social skills in a safe environment they can control.”
However, there’s no reason to worry about your child’s imagination if they don’t have a pretend friend. “All sorts of children with varying levels of creativity may develop imaginary friends,” she said.
Should I be concerned if my child has an imaginary friend?
In Schafer’s view, imaginary friendships are to be encouraged.
“If you watch how they interact with their imaginary friend, a lot of times, because they have to play both themselves and create the world of their imaginary friend, they’re learning different perspectives,” she said.
“They’re problem-solving and learning to deal with one another, because the imaginary friend often takes a different perspective.”
In situations when the imaginary friend gets in trouble or plays cooperatively, your child is actually rehearsing real social situations.
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“That’s wonderful practice for social skills in life and trying on different outcomes,” said Schafer.
“They’re getting these enriched experiences through this form of play… it’s something to be celebrated.”
However, Roberts believes there could be cause for concern if your child struggles to make friends in “real life.”
“Scouts and Brownies and Beavers… are all good programs for that purpose. You can also speak to the school counsellor.”
If your child has an imaginary friend beyond the age of 10, Roberts recommends a psychological consult “to ensure that overall development is on track,” she said. “But overall, I wouldn’t worry.”
Pay attention to the content of the play
Imaginary friends offer endless opportunity to your child: opportunity to practice playing nicely with others, to flex creative muscles and to deal with confusing emotions.
Schafer encourages caregivers to pay attention to the content of a child’s imaginary play, because if they’ve been traumatized, it will likely come through in their play.
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She also warns that sometimes, children can use imaginary friends as a means to manipulate parents or caregivers — and that’s when a line needs to be drawn.
In her view, if the imaginary friend starts to disturb the family order, something needs to change.
“You don’t want to give the child so much power for the reality of their imaginary friend that their imaginary friend is no longer being a co-operating member of the family,” she said. “They can’t be used as an alibi.”
How to treat your child’s imaginary friend
There are some things parents can do to further encourage curiosity and imaginative play.
For Roberts, this means not making a big deal out of the new imaginary friend.
“If your child wants to talk about their imaginary friend, fine,” she said. “But don’t force them to.”
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Schafer takes this one step further and recommends asking questions about the imaginary friend.
“Tell me about your friend. What do they look like? What does your friend like?” she said.
“There’s no right or wrong.”