Dr Richard C. Woolfson
Imaginary friends are so common with young children that psychologists consider it a normal part of development. Estimates suggest that at least 25 per cent of children between the ages of two and five years have invisible companions who keeps them company on occasions.
So don’t worry when your three-year-old sets the table for two, sit in one of the chair, and chats to the empty seat as tough she can actually see someone there. She might even offer her a biscuit! Sometimes a child can have a whole set of imaginary friends, even an entire family.
A GROWING IMAGINATION
When she was a baby, much of her play was exploratory. She discovered the world around her by handling objects, by putting them into her mouth, and by staring at them. But by the age of two or three, her imagination starts to show through and she uses one object to represent another (e.g. the doll represents you); and she can use her imagination to pretend-play about things she has seen.
From this point, it’s only a very small step in her imagination to create an imaginary friend, someone (although it could be an animal, not a person) who is so vivid in her mind that she behaves as though the ‘friend’ is real. For instance, she might be furious with you if you don’t make room for her pal during story time, or if you close the door to the room before her friend has crossed the threshold.
Yet your three-year-old really knows her imaginary friend does not exist. It’s not an uncontrollable hallucination or anything like that. Perhaps the imaginary friend is best understood as living in that halfway house between reality and fantasy.
Research shows that a boy’s invisible pal is usually more competent and talented than himself, while a girl’s fantasy friend is generally less competent. When a child does have an imaginary companion, it often appears less than once a day – he may have his friend beside him one day and then not refer to him again for weeks.
COPING WITH HER PRETEND PAL
Here are some tips for dealing with your three-year-old’s imaginary mate:
1. Take her seriously. Her imaginary friend matters to her, and so she deserves to be take seriously. It’s best to avoid making fun of her because she has a fictitious companion although there is no harm in laughing along with her.
2. Establish limits. She might make excessive demands on behalf of her pal (for instance, always having a seat at the table) and this may become tiresome. Be prepared to say that her imaginary friend doesn’t need to be with her every time.
3. Reassure yourself. Remind yourself out that this is a normal part of childhood and that your three-year-old will grow out of it over the next few years. There is no connection between loneliness and having an imaginary friend.
4. Talk to her. Ask her to describe her imaginary friend to you. She might giggle and look at you as though you are stupid (she knows her friend isn’t real), but she’ll be pleased with your interest.
(Photo: Elina Manninen/123RF.com)
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