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Understanding Your Child's Imaginary Friend

Why your preschooler's pretend playmate is a very good thing

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Children and imaginary friends

Your child's imaginary friend is a product of her ever-growing imagination.

Christina Angorola
You have a pretty good handle on who lives in your house. And the last time you checked, you had one child, not two. And even if you did have two children, you are pretty sure one wouldn't be a purple-haired, flying fairy named "Marshay."

Welcome to the world of imaginary friends.

Having an imaginary friend (or friends) is a very common childhood phase that often occurs during the preschool years -- ages three to five. An imaginary friend can appear for many reasons, including some or all of the below:

  • serves as a coping mechanism to get your little one through a time of transition
  • is a product of an ever-growing imagination
  • helps a child understand the difference between right and wrong
  • gives a preschooler a sense of control over their environment
  • serves as company if a child is playing alone

Imaginary friends are not a bad thing, nor does the presence of one mean that your child is lonely or will have trouble making friends or socializing in the future. Quite the opposite in fact. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, imaginary friends are a creative way for kids to try out new activities, ways of conversing, behaviors and emotions. Here's what to do if you find yourself welcoming a new member of the household.

Be supportive. To learn more about your child's dreamed up sidekick, try embracing the idea of it. If she's open to talking about it, ask your little one questions about who she is and where she comes from. But don't push too hard. It might not be a good idea to start a conversation with her buddy either -- what if your imagination doesn't match up with your child's? Instead, just go with the flow and let your little one take the lead.

Don't enable either. By letting your preschooler dictate when his imaginary friends shows on the scene, it doesn't mean that the "friend" can start bending the rules and do things your child isn't permitted to. If your child starts jumping on the couch because "Martin" thinks it's fun, you still need to step in and draw the line.

Pay attention to when the imaginary friend appears Is "Lonny the Pirate" only around when your little guy is getting trouble for something? ("He made me dump all of my toys onto the floor.") If so, don't accuse your child of lying. Instead, talk about the rules of the house and how everyone must follow them. Does the imaginary friend arrive when you are interacting with a new baby or if you are talking about a big change in your child's life? By being mindful of when the imaginary friend shows up on the scene, you'll have some insight as to why he was created to begin with.

See the good in an imaginary friend. An imaginary friend lets your child engage in creative play while working on socialization and language skills. It also lets your child feel control over the situation. An imaginary friend can be bossed around and talked back to with no negative backlash to your child. Safe and comforting, your child can practice trying out who she is with an imaginary friend and create scenarios where she socializes with others.

Be patient. How long will an imaginary friend stick around? Hard to say. The AAP says some kids have one pretend playmate for up to six months, while others change make-believe companions every day. As your child becomes immeshed in real life, it's likely the need for an imaginary friend will quietly fade away.

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