In Parenting Help

Imaginary Friends: Good for Your Child or Dangerous?

imaginary friends

A young Florida couple recently described how they went on a vacation and left their daughter, Jessica, alone with her grandparents for the very first time when she was three.  When they came back, the daughter had some new friends, Pete and Lindy.  They were surprised to discover that Pete and Lindy were imaginary friends.  Lindy was a sweet child, but Pete was a troublemaker.  He spilled Jessica’s milk, broke Jessica’s toys, and eventually the father sent Pete and Lindy off to Texas.  Why Texas?  Why not? It was far away. Fortunately, by that time, Jessica was tired of Pete and Lindy, too.

Does your child have an imaginary friend? Are you worried that they may be taking their non-existent friendship too far?  Some families describe having to set a place at the table for their child’s imaginary friends or having to give them a blanket on a cold night.  Is it okay for children to have such vivid imaginations?

Psychology Today reports that many children interact with their toys and stuffed animals, but 37% of all children actually develop an imaginary friend.  Interestingly enough, while girls can develop imaginary friends who are both male and female, boys primarily create only male imaginary friends.  And boys may interact with their imaginary friends by incorporating game theory or envisioning them as superheroes. Some kids get even more creative – they invent imaginary friends who are animals or fantasy creatures.

At What Age do Imaginary Friends Appear?

Many people think imaginary friends only exist only in pre-school age children.  But research shows that older children often develop imaginary friends, yet they are less likely to share this information with their parents.  In addition, younger children often create imaginary friends based on favorite stuffed animals or toys, but older children often created “a purely imaginary companion.”

And do these kids ever carry their fantasies further and become adults with imaginary friends? Ironically, the Psychology Today article states that adult writers often describe their characters as “taking on a life of their own, which may be an analogous process to children’s invisible friends.” They also describe adolescents as having imaginary friends, but point out that  such  teenagers were often “socially competent and creative adolescents.”  In these cases, perhaps the imaginary friends serve as beneficial characters who help adolescents and adults develop a measure of security.

What is the Psychology Behind the Creation of an Imaginary Friend?

How do children create imaginary friends?  The journal Scientific American reports that research shows that “loneliness motivates individuals to seek out relationships, even if those relationships are not real.”  Sometimes changes in circumstances can cause children to invent friends so that they can self-comfort. For instance, a move to a new environment, a change in schools, or a divorce can precipitate the invention of an imaginary friend.

As explained in the Psychology Today article, “There are many case studies of children inventing imaginary friends to help them cope with traumatic experiences.”  Many researchers believe that having an imaginary friend can actually be a benefit for kids. Author Alexandra Grablewski  believes imaginary friends are capable of “helping with everything from problem-solving skills to emotional well-being.”

Far from being a crutch used by children who are lonely and need support, Grablewski believes that children create imaginary friends to enable them to establish control over their worlds.  Far from being the result of isolation, imaginary friends often appear to children who are extremely sociable.  But, with their imaginary friend, they can establish their own style and practice their particular personality traits.  Obviously the very invention of an imaginary friend indicates a strong degree of imagination, but the ability to play off that friend may be a good way to learn social skills.

Having an imaginary friend does not indicate that your child has a problem.  In fact, in some cases, their existence can indicate that the child has a good, active imagination and is using the imaginary friend to work through various issues.  It’s not necessary for you to make an effort to get rid of them.  Nor should you feel the need to humor the child about everything the imaginary friend does.  If their imaginary friend is the one messing up the child’s bedroom every day, you may need to say, “Well, it’s still your responsibility to clean it up – he/she is your friend.”  Don’t take it lightly, but don’t turn it into a major issue, either.

Are Imaginary Friends Ever Dangerous?

Children frequently use their imaginary friends to experiment with social interaction.  But sometimes, children invent scary imaginary friends and this can be a problem. The Oxford Handbook of the Development of Imagination (ISBN 978-0-19-539576-1, 2013) distinguishes between the imaginary characters that normal children create and those that are a product of psychopathology.  Normal children know that their imaginary characters aren’t real.  If you press them on their newly created friends, they will admit that they know they’re imaginary, that others cannot see or talk to them.  They will appreciate you pretending that you do, accommodating the imaginary friend, because you are playing along with them.  But they know it is play.

Children who suffer from psychological issues often feel that the characters they imagine are real, that they are obligated to listen to them and interact with them.  This can be a real problem and requires serious psychological evaluation.  Sometimes children can delude themselves that what is obviously not real is actually true.

For instance, in the recent Slender Man fiasco, two teenage girls were recently charged with attempted murder after they lured a friend into the woods and stabbed her. According to an article in Time Magazine, Slender Man is an online Urban Legend, a tall, faceless man who stalks and terrorizes young girls.  The two convicted teens related to this imaginary character so much that they felt they were doing his bidding.  One girl even told the police that, “It was weird I didn’t feel any remorse.”  Obviously, if your children have an obsession like this, they need to be seen by a professional psychologist or mental health counselor.

What Can/Should You Do About Imaginary Friends?

As always with children, communication is key. According to the Web site Wise Geek, many children invent imaginary friends to help combat feelings of loneliness.  If this is the case with your child, maybe you should try to set up a play date with other children, or take them to the park and see how they interact with “real” friends. Help them develop social skills in actual situations, but don’t take over their social lives.  Kids need to learn these skills independent of parents.

Parenting expert Armon Brott suggests that you should establish some ground rules for the child who has an imaginary friend.  Brott believes that imaginary friends can represent a very positive experience for a child, providing an opportunity for the child to practice communication, provide companionship and even help the child understand behavioral limits. But he feels that parents need to monitor such friendships.  Specifically, he recommends that parents:

  • Make sure the child has “real” friends, not just imaginary friends.
  • Refuse to allow negative behavior to be foisted onto the imaginary friend.
  • Treat the imaginary friend’s existence with respect, and
  • Don’t use the imaginary friend to manipulate your child’s behavior.

Talk to your child about the importance of establishing friendships with people who can interact with them in a realistic way.  While most experts recommend that you not try to talk your child out of their imaginary friendships, you can discuss the advantages of real people as opposed to the fake kind. In the meantime, trust that you will know when it’s time for the imaginary friend to go away.  Most times, they will simply disappear as the child becomes bored with the effort to maintain the friendship with “my imaginary friend.”  If not, and you feel it’s time, you can always send them to another location.

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