Some parents notice that their child, now 3 years old, talks to himself and plays in an odd way, as if he was playing with another kid. When they ask him: “Who are you talking to?” He explains confidently: “I’m playing with my friend”, even though that friend does not really exist. This is what psychologists call an “imaginary friend”. This usually happens with the eldest or only or youngest child (after many brothers and sisters), but is not the general rule.
Parents worry a lot when they see their child talking to or playing with his imaginary friend, and they often do not accept the situation, which is usually normal and happens with all children. In fact, it is known that this imaginary friend disappears after the child starts going to school, or after he grows older (6 years old). This is when the child says that his friend has gone far away, or that he has travelled with his parents. At this stage, it is assumed that the kid would have matured, and is making friends from school.
What is the psychological importance of the imaginary friend?
The imaginary friend is a type of game for the child, where his fertile imagination gets mixed up with reality, and an imaginary person or animal becomes an effective factor in his life. When the child is faced with the truth, he takes up a defensive stand, and pretends that no one can see this friend, because he is invisible.
Usually, this “friend” is material at first (a doll, a toy, a teddy bear), then transforms into an invisible character that stays with the kid at all times: During play time, while he does his homework, during meals and even in his sleep.
Through the stories that the child tells to his mom or dad about his imaginary friend, the parents can recognize his fears or expectations, as well as his anxieties. So these stories have great significance and lessons for the parents, and they must listen to them but not encourage them. Also, every child needs a friend to share his feelings with, unload his emotional and express what bothers him.
This phenomenon happens with 1 child out of 5, and lessens each time the parents are honest with their kid. The child also resorts to his imaginary friend to avoid doing something he doesn’t want to do, or to know right from wrong.
Also, the imaginary friend helps the kid overcome difficult situations such as: The first day in school, a visit to the doctor, a fight between his parents, or a worry because of a certain situation. In these cases, the imaginary friend helps create a safe environment, where the child learns how to solve problems, especially when there is a conversation running between the two, and the imaginary friend is trying to help the child.
Moreover, there are children who ask their mother to prepare a meal for their imaginary friend, which is normal, because the child cares for his imaginary friend, and the latter helps the child to communicate with others through expanding his lexical knowledge.
In this context, some studies have shown that the imaginary friend helps the child grow emotionally, and face problems logically, for example: If the child is scared of visiting to the doctor, the imaginary friend encourages the child not to be afraid, and the child tries to overcome his fear through his “friend”. The child also gives his imaginary friend personality traits he lacks, that wishes to have himself.
Usually, there is no psychological problem if the child has fun playing with other kids (real kids). But if he continues to depend completely on his imaginary friend, parents can intervene in a soft way.
How to treat the child and his imaginary friend
When the parents discover this odd friendship between their child and his imaginary friend, they should never overreact, but shouldn’t also go with it till the end, so that the child doesn’t take it as a real issue. He has to differentiate between the imaginary world and the real world. The matter is not dangerous as long as the imaginary friend does not keep the child from making friendships, play with other kids, or get along with his friends in kindergarten or at school. Furthermore, the child should not be called a liar nor hit. Instead, parents must go along and listen to his stories about his imaginary friends.
Here are some small advices to help your kid overcome his imaginary friend:
– Take the kid to meet other kids: Children of friends, family or neighbors.
– Encourage the kid to play with kids his age at school or in kindergarten,
– Blame the kid less if he does something bad, such as breaking a vase or drawing on the wall… This way, the child does not refer to his invisible friend to avoid the blame or the punishment.
– On one hand, do not underestimate, devalue or take the imaginary friend as a lie, because he is the child himself but in the imaginary world. On the other hand, you should not exaggerate in accepting the situation.