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Imaginary friends: why they are good for your child

Many children will have an ‘imaginary friend’ at some point while they are growing up. Here are some of the tips I share with mums and dads to make the most of these wonderful companions:

How common is it?

“It’s normal for both boys and girls to have imaginary friends — whether they be humans, animals or some kind of fantasy creature. Often kids can vividly describe their interactions with these beings — and they can be a great way for them to develop feelings of competence and creativity. Some may only be around for a day — others can be part of a child’s life for years and they may sometimes assume the status of an invisible family member.”

Why do so many children have them?

“Imaginary friends can play a number of roles in a child’s life — from providing an ever-ready playmate to helping them deal with fears, explore ideas and learn to take care of another person.”

Should parents worry?

“There’s sometimes a misperception that children may invent imaginary friends to compensate for feelings of loneliness or awkwardness. In fact, the opposite is often true and children who have imaginary friends tend to be particularly creative, empathic, and self-directed. Imaginary friends can also help a child develop a wonderful sense of fun and humour.”

What’s the best way to deal with imaginary friends?

“It’s up to you how much attention you give to your imaginary friends.  The best thing to do is to acknowledge and include them as a legitimate presence in the household. Be curious about this invisible visitor — and try not to dismiss them as non-existent, or figments of a child’s imagination. You might even wish to ask to speak to the imaginary friend which may help you gain a greater insight into how your child feels or their perspective on certain issues. Being interested and validating their imaginary friend, can be a great way of strengthening your own emotional connection with your child. Above all, avoid any temptation to speak on behalf of the imaginary friend — this is a relationship owned by the child and they will have the final say on what this unseen visitor is thinking, feeling or doing.”

“It is also important to trust your intuition. It’s obviously not acceptable for a child to blame bad behaviour on an imaginary friend or use them as an excuse. Don’t let a child use an imaginary friend to undermine your usual parental boundaries, but try to avoid trivialising or even ridiculing the friend. Your child will feel empowered if you treat their imaginary friend with respect — even if they can understandably pose challenges for you as a parent.

What benefits do imaginary friends bring?

“Imaginary friends provide a wonderfully creative way for children to express themselves — and are a true expression of the magic of childhood. Children can use these relationships to build confidence, practice their verbal skills, exercise leadership qualities and engage in creative play. The imaginary friend is a unique reflection of part of the child’s inner world — and can help them express things they might not be able to directly express themselves.”