Why Does My Child Have an Imaginary Friend?
Ask any adult who had an imaginary friend as a child and he or she can usually tell you in detail what the friend’s name was, where he lived, and sometimes even the ways in which the friend was used. Although many children choose to invent imaginary companions, these invisible beings’ mystical quality often leaves parents and teachers unsure of how to respond to a child’s references to them. Let’s demystify the imaginary friend and explore its role in a child’s development.
Children use their imagination to grow emotionally. Creating an imaginary friend is one way to do this. Think, for instance, of the child who has a “blankey” or stuffed animal that offers a special, almost magical, form of comfort. A child can comfort himself by summoning his imaginary friend, which goes beyond depending on parents or carrying a physical object. The child also is managing his need for comfort privately and internally — another growth step.
A child seeking comfort from an imaginary friend is akin to a mature adult comforting herself through thoughts and memories. Being a friend to oneself, in other words, is similar to having an imaginary friend.
Comfort is just one of a child’s emotional needs. There are many others, and children use imaginary objects to help with all of them, just as they might also use objects and toys to work through various themes that surface in their emotional development. Think of how children develop their nurturing skills by emulating parents when they care for dolls, their growing understanding of good vs. bad as they work through conflicts with action figures, and their development of self-control and order as they reprimand toys for imagined misdeeds and misbehaviors. These are examples of how imaginative play serves a deeper purpose in a child’s emotional development.
With time, children gradually leave their comfort objects, dolls and action figures behind — a sign they have worked through their developmental issues and are ready to move forward. Until then, children can have their imaginary friend with them at every moment, ready to help them work on something when the need arises.
Calling an imaginary being a “friend” is a bit of a misnomer and somewhat misleading. This being is not really a “friend” in the true sense of the word but, instead, is an object that serves a developmental purpose.
An imaginary friend is an imaginative object, like a doll or stuffed animal, without the physical presence. It is not a substitute for live friends or, for that matter, anything like a live friend. Live friends are separate beings a child must relate to socially. Imaginary beings are part of the child, and he or she relates to that being as he or she sees fit.
What role do parents play?
Like comfort objects and playthings, imaginary friends are available for a child to turn to when needed. This “relationship” — defined by the manner in which the child uses the object — is intimate and private. Parents know intuitively not to discredit the special comfort a blanket or stuffed animal provides. Parents of children who have imaginary friends can offer that same respect, understanding that the imaginary friend probably exists to assist their child with a current developmental task. Beyond that, parents should simply stay out of the way.
Why some children and not others create imaginary friends is, and likely always will be, a mystery. As long as a child has real friends, too, parents need do little but sit back and delight in this enchanting stage of their child’s life.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families.