Tonight my daughter introduced me to Luna, a light pink, dark purple, and orange cat, and a large, red dog with floppy ears called American Dog who also goes by the nickname of Dave. These are the latest additions to her squad of imaginary friends, which already includes Dooby, a green, furry monster with five red eyes; and two little girls, Sarah and Elizabeth.
While it's fascinating to watch my daughter immerse herself in a world of make believe, it's also flat out creepy to be informed that Dooby and Sarah are sitting next to me on the floor, or that they like to sleep in my closet. For the sake of encouraging my daughter's creativity, though, I try to play it cool and be gracious to my fictional house guests. Heck, it's easier than hosting actual house guests. So here's what you need to know if your child brings home imaginary friends of her own.
It's totally normal for imaginary friends to appear, typically when a child is between three and eight years old, and some studies even report up to 65% of children have had an imaginary friend at some point.
Oldest children and only children are more likely to make up friends than other siblings in the birth order, and children with imaginary friends tend to have slightly larger vocabularies than other kids their age. They're creative and have strong empathic skills, since they role play both sides of the discussion with their pretend friends.
Kids also understand that their fictional friends aren't real, according to Marjorie Taylor, one of the leading psychologists in this field. In her studies, when children discuss their imaginary friends, they almost always make a point of assuring her that they're pretend.
Just go with it.
Take cues from your child on how to interact with his or her new pal. My daughter made a point of introducing me to Dooby and Sarah soon after they appeared, and I did my best to stare at the same point in space on which she was focused as we made our introductions. Conversely, if you notice your child talking to thin air, and they don't engage you in the discussion, let them be. They may want their friend to be private.
Ask open-ended questions.
Imaginary friends are a tool children use to work through scary feelings, confusing social interactions, and as an outlet to exercise their imagination, so follow their lead. You'll get a glimpse into their complicated little minds, while keeping them in control of figuring out what's real and what's not.
If you've ever read the novel “Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend," you might find this to be the biggest challenge. Without giving away the important plot points of the book, in the story, make-believe friends are only capable of doing things that their children imagine they can do.
If a child doesn't envision that his friend can open doors, then it can't. I wanted Dooby to have the best imaginary life possible (just in case), so I asked a lot of leading questions at first. “Can he open doors? Does he sleep? Does he always have to be with you, or can he wander on his own?" When I shut up and asked questions like, “What does Dooby look like? How do you feel when Dooby's around? Why do you like being with Dooby? Where does Dooby live?" I got way more interesting, creative, and funny answers, and it kept my daughter in the director's chair of her evolving storyline.
Keep rules consistent.
Sometimes children introduce imaginary friends to test rules and limits. My daughter has definitely pointed the finger at Dooby a few times, but instead of forcing her to admit that she was really the culprit, I follow the “just go with it" principle while reinforcing the rules of the house.
“I'm so disappointed in Dooby for hitting your little brother. I'm sure you would have stopped him if you saw it happen, since you know better than that. Let's apologize and make sure it doesn't happen again." This one is still a work in progress for both of us.
Make room for down time.
The appearance of an imaginary friend is a great excuse for us parents to give our children more downtime and to not feel guilty about it. Structured activities are enriching, but children also need sufficient time to get immersed in their own world of make-believe.
A preschool director once explained to me that it can take 30 minutes or more for them to lose themselves in their own world, and then they need time to explore and experiment within it. This free play is critical to their cognitive, social and emotional development, and, as a bonus, it can give us parents a little free time of our own. (It's how I stole some time to write this article. Thank you, Dooby!)
Somewhere I read a quote by the clinical psychiatrist, Kay Redfield Jamison that said, “Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity." All kids will play, and some will do it with imaginary friends. If you're lucky enough to have one of those kids, welcome their new buddies with open arms and enjoy the ride. It's a fascinating one.