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Imaginary Friends

For months, 3-year-old Ella Kuckes of Barrington, RI, insisted that her mom, Niki, answer the door to a silent knock. "Tweety's outside," she'd say. Together they would open the door, and Ella would welcome her invisible friend inside for a long afternoon of conversation.

Social preschoolers love being with people, and if there's no convenient playmate around, they'll often just invent one. More than half of all kids do -- made-up friends go hand in hand with a child's growing imagination and interest in pretend play.

Plus, these fictional playmates give kids an outlet for exploring the world, including things that may be new or upsetting. If a real person in your child's life is sick or sad, his imaginary friend might well be, too, says Marjorie Taylor, Ph.D., author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. Because kids control the outcome of an imaginary pal's experience, having a "friend" survive a scary incident can be reassuring.

While your child's pretend buddy will eventually take a hike (lots of kids report that the friend has moved away or even died), other invisible buddies may replace him over the next few years.In the meantime, how should you respond when your child introduces you to his imaginary pal?

Get to know him. Kids love for parents to show an interest in their creations. Ask your child to draw his friend, or join them in a game.

Let your child be in charge. Little kids don't get many chances to control the world around them, so don't try to speak for the invisible pal or say that he's sitting with you at the table before your child does. Let him take the lead.

Hold your kid accountable. Make sure he understands you know that he -- not the pretend buddy -- tracked in the mud. And if your child won't eat his green beans because Jimmy doesn't like them, firmly explain -- to both of them! -- that all kids in your house have to get their vitamins.

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