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Imaginary friends: Peers with purpose

Published on: October 01, 2009

Imaginary friends come in all shapes and sizes -- some invisible, some embodied by toys or other objects. While they are as unique as the children who imagine them, most imaginary companions are a normal and temporary part of a child's life.

In a 2004 study, 65 percent of the participating children reported that, by age 7, they had had an imaginary companion. Psychology professors Marjorie Taylor from the University of Oregon, and Stephanie Carlson from the University of Washington, noted that children of all personality styles invented imaginary companions.

Having an imaginary friend isn't necessarily a conclusive indicator of anything about your child's development, and it isn't usually cause for concern, agrees Sal Severe, Ph.D., a local psychologist, nationally known parent educator and best-selling author of How to Behave So Your Preschooler Will, Too!

A child may even have different imaginary friends at different times. Or, as Taylor and Carlson found, the same imaginary friends may come and go as the child needs them.

Blue Boy, the imaginary friend of Amy Roth-Boober's daughter, Josie, first appeared when Josie was adjusting to a new baby brother. Later Blue Boy disappeared, but "when we moved from Marysville to Bothell, Blue Boy moved to a blue house down the street. He came around a lot after that," Roth-Boober says.

"Children work through their problems and conquer their fears through make-believe," Severe says. Imaginary friends can help children manage stress by giving them practice controlling their emotions and impulses and by allowing them control over their imaginary friends, he says.

"Fantasy allows a child to work on a variety of concerns, fears and problems," Taylor writes in her book, Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. "More often, though, children pretend to have an imaginary friend simply because it is fun."

Whatever your child's reasons, her pretend friends likely will begin to disappear as she expands her circle of real friends, typically during the kindergarten year, Severe says. "Until then, parents need to show acceptance of imaginary friends, never disputing their existence. Let the young child enjoy his friend for imaginative play and emotional support," he says.

Such acceptance can require extra patience at times. "For almost a year, Makenna never forgot that Kallie Frallie was with us," marvels Kristy Relkoff of Everett about her daughter's friend. "You would think she would forget by the time we drove to the store and got buckled into the shopping cart, but she'd have to put Kallie Frallie in the cart, too." Adds Roth-Boober: "For quite some time, Blue Boy came with us everywhere."

Imaginary friends can also help a child express fears he is reluctant to share more directly. For example, he might claim he keeps a night light because his friend is afraid of the dark. Additionally, many children find their friends make convenient scapegoats for misbehavior.

Severe cautions parents, "you want your children to know that they can't blame an imaginary character... an imaginary friend has limits. Don't ever excuse misconduct blamed on an imaginary friend, or it will become a ploy forever. Young children learn very quickly what works."

These days, Relkoff and Roth-Boober report that their daughters, both now age 5, don't often play with their imaginary friends, who first arrived when their girls were close to 3 years old. The moms confess they miss the friends and their exploits and agree that, despite the challenges, such companions are helpful.

"It was a useful tool for finding out what kinds of concerns Makenna had, based on her involved stories about her friend's life," Relkoff recalls.

In the rare case that imaginary friends are your child's only playmates, or that your child's pretend friends don't begin to fade away by about age 7, Severe recommends redirecting your child into other activities that enable him to make more friends. It's also a good idea to talk with your child's teacher or school counselor, to find out if there are more serious issues that your child needs help resolving.

Most often, however, imaginary friends are simply another version of the imaginative play that is so crucial to a child's healthy development. "Fantasy and pretend play should always be encouraged in young children," Severe reminds parents. "It's important to their personal growth and emotional development."

Julie Kumasaka lives in Everett with her husband, their 5-year-old daughter, and two stuffed-bunny "friends."


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Originally published in the October, 2006 print edition of ParentMap.

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