An imaginary friend – should I worry?
Children usually create an imaginary friend at about the age of three to four. This friend can stay with them for a number of years, but generally, seems to disappear when the child is in the first or second year of primary school. In rare instances, an imaginary friend can remain a part of the child’s life further into primary school.
Research shows that first-born children are more likely to have imaginary friends. It is also slightly more common for girls to have them. Although it may cause some parents concern, they must understand that their child will grow up knowing the difference between reality and fantasy, just like their peers who do not have imaginary friends.
These imaginary friends may be a person, usually another child, an animal or the personification of a stuffed toy.
It is generally very normal, and has become more acceptable and understood over the years. It seems that children often either create the illusion of a friend to help them through a big transition in their lives, or they are simply a part of the child’s imaginative play. Children with imaginary friends are generally well-adjusted socially and interact well with real-life friends.
Creative, imaginative play comes very easily to young children. They will make suggestions regarding the direction that a ‘game’ is heading in and there is usually someone who is the ‘boss of the game’. They are fully aware that what they are doing is playing a game, but they are able to discuss different behaviours and can test options with their friends.
A child with an imaginary friend will engage in the same activities, but imagine how a friend might react or behave. While engaging with an imaginary friend, the child has the opportunity to take both sides of the situation into account and to express emotions and feelings that are not easy to express outside of that situation. They are better able to test ideas and social skills, while being in complete control of the situation.
Children will also sometimes test a parent’s reactions by telling them that ‘Georgie’ says this or that, waiting to see if that is acceptable to the parent. They could even blame their imaginary friend if they have done something wrong or readily suggest that it was the friend who made a mess in their room. It is a good idea not to over-react, but ensure that the imaginary friend also adheres to the morals and norms of the family.
For instance, let your child’s friend ‘help’ to tidy up their room or tell the friend that it is not acceptable to be unkind or unfriendly. This will still hold them accountable for their own actions.
In some cases, children might project their own anxieties or fears onto their imaginary friend, so it is worthwhile for parents to listen to the conversations and pick up clues about what the child is currently thinking or feeling. As much as parents want to encourage their children to achieve academic and sporting success, they should also be eager to encourage the development of their child’s language, critical thinking skills and imagination, all of which are developed with imaginative or pretend play of all kinds.
Parents should create as many opportunities as possible to play along with their children, explore books and play creatively with dress-up items to further develop these skills. Although children know that their imaginary friend is not real, it is important for parents to take note of the following: If your child becomes withdrawn or does not want to interact socially with others, it might be time to seek professional help. The same applies if their imaginary friend appears to be aggressive, depressed or anxious.
So the consensus seems to be that if a child has an imaginary friend, just relax and be happy that your child has a good imagination.
Text: Shirley Edwards (a teacher at Trinity House Pre-Primary School in Randpark Ridge)
Get it JHB West – February 2018