So, true story. My beautiful, funny, and very literal-minded eldest daughter (then four) once had an imaginary friend. This friend gave me real pause.
His name? Mr. Nobody. His favorite activity? Smoking. Really. Neither my husband nor I smoked, and Sophia did not spend much time around people who did smoke. Disturbing, right?
For months, we watched my daughter sit and wait. “Sophia, what are you doing?” we would ask. “Mr. Nobody is on a smoke break…he is coming back soon.” My husband and I would smile and nod, then turn around and look at each other in horror. Our daughter had willingly created a friend who smoked, and even worse, he wouldn’t play with her. Ugg.
I decided to take a “wait and see” approach (more on this later), and after a couple of weeks, Sophia dumped Mr. Nobody and we moved on to bigger and better imaginary friends.
So, what’s the story with these imaginary friends? Some parents worry (kids can become very attached, creating elaborate plans and scenarios that involve their fictional buddy), some parents lose their patience (ever not been able to leave the house for an appointment unless the plastic pork chop was found?), and some parents totally buy in and support the fantasy, full-tilt.
So, let’s break it down with a quick Q & A, shall we?
Q: Are imaginary friends normal? And at what age do most kids create an imaginary friend?
A: Not only is it normal, but imaginary friends are also the signs of a healthy and developing brain. This creativity is only the beginning of what our children can do with their brains! Imaginary friends can begin as early as three years of age, and last until well into elementary school, seven or eight years of age. There even seems to be some scientific correlation between imaginary friends, later ages, and the fiction-writer’s brain! Cool, right?
Q: My child has odd imaginary friends, like pieces of plastic foods or a Lego man, who has no arms. Is this okay?
A: Yes! When the object becomes an active part of imaginative play and is not needed simply for sleep or comfort (a lovey), your child has applied their wonderful imagination to it…and it is a very important object now! Your child may ask the object about its opinion and thoughts on things like meals, clothing choices, etc., and the object may hate apples. This is normal…if not sometimes irritating. These same “opinions” can also be applied to the friend whom we cannot see!
Q: I feel like our imaginary friend is hijacking our family! The friend has to sit in certain seat at the table, needs a booster seat in the car, and is demanding his own book at bedtime. To what extent do I need to keep this up? When is enough, ENOUGH?
A: I tell parents to pick their battles on this front. Firstly, unless your instinct is telling you that there is something amiss about the imaginary friend, just accept it. Secondly, recognize that this is a phase and will pass. In fact, if you allow yourself to have some fun with it, it is a great phase (unlike tantrums!) If you feel as if your child is manipulating the family dynamics with the friend, simply say, “I am willing to read you each this book, and then you are going to have to share another book with your friend.” “I am willing to put this chair next to you, and you are going to have to share your dinner with your friend. I am not creating another plate.” Whatever you do, don’t make a big fuss over your boundaries. State them, in the simplest and easy-to-understand terms, and leave it at that. And when in doubt, meet creativity with creativity! Serve the friend an imaginary meal and ask your child if he sees the green pizza, covered with yellow beans and pink pepperonis!
Q: What if my child argues with her imaginary friend? What do I do?
A: Ah, yes…the disagreeable imaginary friend. Back to Sophia and Mr. Nobody…I started to notice that she was waiting for him and he was being quite rude. It was an interesting opportunity to walk about friendships and create some solutions. I asked her, “What would you do if your friend did this at school? What are some other toys we can play with?” I started to move her away from the waiting and toward proactive behaviors. Likewise, you can use imaginary friends to model some great behaviors, like sharing and asking questions about feelings. I also love to have imaginary friends teach use more about etiquette (nothing worse than a friend who doesn’t say please or thank you, or will not pass the ball!)
So, embrace the imaginary friend! It is relatively harmless, fun, and above all, normal. And hopefully your imaginary friend isn’t a rude smoker…