Imaginary friends: should parents be concerned?

Imaginary friends: should parents be concerned?

It can be quite a shock to parents when a new member of the family suddenly arrives; one who seems to deserve extra food treats, who takes the blame for all that’s wrong or who has to join in with every family outing. It marks the arrival of the imaginary friend. To minimise the shock (and to explain why you really do need to take it seriously) here’s some all-round parenting advice.

It’s thought that about one-third of children have such a friend. Some arrive around the age of two, but the phenomenon reaches its peak around the age of three or four.

I don’t remember my son ever having an imaginary friend but my daughter had a few. There are two that stand out the most, Bey-leesh-ha (No idea how to spell the name but that’s how she pronounced it) who was a little girl who used to come everywhere with us but lived in the loft. The other was ‘Monkey’ who was a mischievous monkey. I will never forget the trip to Chiquitos for our lunch one Saturday afternoon and she spent the entire meal shouting ‘LOOK OUT! HE’S SWINGING FROM THE CEILING! DUCK! COME DOWN MONKEY’ Everyone must have thought we were mad!

Imaginary friends can take any shape or form and they appear to serve a range of different purposes. The number can also vary, from one very close friend to a cast of hundreds. They’re very handy to blame, to gain advantage in the family, to play with and to work out solutions to some big questions. The great thing about an imaginary friend is that they are special to your child, they don’t judge or criticise and they’re always there. And research suggests that, far from being lonely, children with imaginary friends tend to be more sociable and more at ease talking to real friends.

The first thing to know is that there’s nothing mentally wrong with your chid – far from it. Such children show remarkable imagination and they often develop language skills early, as they converse with their friend and rehearse life’s puzzles and problems. A substantial number of fiction writers admit to having had an imaginary friend, so you may be raising a future novelist. If you are worried at any time, have a quiet word with your GP, particularly if your child has recently suffered trauma such as a bereavement.

So, how should you respond? It’s important to listen; by doing so, you can learn a lot about how your child feels. For example, the friend might be used to say something that your child doesn’t feel confident enough to say, such as, ‘Mummy, Flopsy doesn’t like it when you turn out the light at night’. Your child wants you to know they’re scared of the dark, without appearing silly by admitting it. Friends can also appear when a new sibling is born. Your child is working out this new situation and finding their place in it, so don’t intervene in their chatter. Listen, and create opportunities for your child to feel special if you think they’re feeling left out.

Imaginary friends fulfil a lot of functions. They allow your child to take control for a while. They fill moments of boredom and they can even act as a child’s conscience. Whatever the purpose, it’s best not to engage with the friend, particularly when they are being blamed. And if you’re asked to tidy up for Flopsy, just politely point out that it’s your child’s job to help Flopsy, not yours.

Your child knows that the friend isn’t real, but you can still use their existence to your advantage. Observations like, ‘Look how quickly Flopsy gets ready for school’ can work wonders.

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