Q: Is it normal that my four-year-old daughter has an imaginary friend? Does this mean she’s lonely?
A: Don't worry, your child is not only normal, but also very creative! Her blossoming imagination is creating this wonderfully fictitious friend, this special and personal pal who goes alongside them as they explore and make sense of the world. Firstborns often have imaginary friends, as do very bright kids. It's one way children learn to make distinctions between right and wrong, assert themselves, try out different scenarios and practise their verbal skills.
Most young children play pretend games and interact with their stuffed animals, dolls or other special toys as if they are real and alive. And according to the University of Oregon, by the age of seven about 37 per cent of children take imaginative play a step further and create an invisible friend.
Having an imaginary friend is a perfectly natural part of your child’s healthy development – invisible friends are really a compelling and involved form of pretend play. So relax! Children with imaginary friends have been found to be more articulate, have improved creativity and higher self-esteem.
When I was a deputy head, one boy’s mum and dad asked about his imaginary friend and should they stop this behaviour as they worried that he was lonely; but research doesn’t support those assumptions. In fact, children with imaginary friends tend to be less shy, engage in more laughing and smiling with their peers, and show more understanding and empathy because they do better at tasks involving imagining how someone else might feel.
Studies researching the phenomena of childhood imaginary friends have also found that if a parent asks too many questions about the invisible friend or, worse still, tries to interact with them, the friend disappears as miraculously as they arrived. So when you hear your child chattering away into thin air, it’s best not to intervene or to get involved. It’s in the best interest of your child’s healthy development to keep their make-believe friend part of their lives until they decide to stop.
Imaginary friends give children the novel opportunity to tell someone else what to do for a change! Their invisible friend behaves exactly the way they want them to, so your child can be the tallest, the fastest or the one in charge. This is important to a child as they are always being told what to do; this role reversal is really empowering and liberating for them.
Expressing their thoughts and feelings safely
Some children use their imaginary friend to tell you how they are feeling, as they feel unable to say it themselves. So they might say, ‘Rooky The Rabbit doesn’t like it when you are cross, Mummy.’
It’s personal and private
An imaginary friend belongs to the person who invents them and no one else. They don’t have to be shared with friends or family. So don’t take control of your child’s friend. Let them explore and imagine until they feel ready to move on.
Imaginary friends are particularly common among children with newborn siblings. Studies have shown that a child may use this friend as they adjust to a new brother or sister – their make-believe friend provides them with reassurance and comfort and can also help them to replace any temporary loss of your parental attention during this time of change and transition.
Children also may have an imaginary friend during other times of turmoil or change – such as a divorce or bereavement – to help them cope and process what’s happening to them.
Practice makes perfect
A make-believe friend can give your child the perfect opportunity to practise something they want to say to someone in reality. It also gives them the chance to practise their verbal skills, which is why children with imaginary friends tend to be more articulate.
Second helpings – the Oliver syndrome
An invisible friend can be a sneaky means of getting an extra portion of food: ‘Betsy would also like some strawberry ice cream with extra sprinkles, Mum.’ Be proud of their ingenuity!
Working through imaginary baddies has also been found to be a healthy coping mechanism for children. Your child may invent someone to practise speaking up to or arguing with, which helps them to get rid of their angry, frustrating or negative feelings.
Some particularly resourceful children find that an invisible friend can be a handy scapegoat: ‘It was Rosie who spilt the orange juice on your iPad, it wasn’t me,’ they protest, pointing at thin air.
Make friends with their imaginary friend to your advantage
Don’t try to manipulate your child’s imaginary friend – but there’s no harm in turning their existence to your advantage. You could try: ‘Oh look, Mr Tumble has eaten all his veg – why don’t you copy him?’ or ‘Why don’t you have a race with Molly to see who can get dressed first?’ or ‘I bet Pete can tidy up your toys faster than you!’
None of this is evidence that your child is troubled, as having imaginary friends can be a simple source of comfort. Relax – it’s a magical time.
Sue Atkins is an internationally recognised parenting expert, broadcaster, speaker and author of numerous best-selling parenting books. Sue is a regular contributor to the First Discoverer’s website by Wesco. If you liked this article you can find more like this at firstdiscoverers.co.uk and also download their free eBooks. You can read more about Sue on her website sueatkinsparentingcoach.com.