Recently I was talking to my daughter on the phone when she had to interrupt the conversation to ask her three year old daughter (my granddaughter) what the problem was. Madi was crying loudly, expressing some distress. Madi responded that “Kitty-Puppy” had hit her because “Kitty-Puppy” wanted her toy. Madi was upset. My daughter told “Kitty-Puppy” to go take a time-out if they could not play appropriately. Madi went back to play with her toys in her room.
“Kitty-Puppy” are Madi’s imaginary pet friends that often accompany her to our family gatherings, preschool, shopping or at home during Madi’s daily routine. Kitty-Puppy get into buckets of trouble at home and Madi gets into verbal disagreements, often sounding as if she is having a sibling fight with her imaginary friends. At bedtime Madi will often have to get out of bed to “tattle” on her imaginary friends who aren’t going to sleep or are thirsty and need a drink. “Kitty-Puppy” showed up when Madi was two years old.
Years ago, there were many conjectures about why a child creates an imaginary friend. Most centered around the theme that the child was filling some void in his/her life. But this myth has been debunked by Majorie Taylor, a world leading authority. Taylor did a study of 100 children both as preschoolers and again at 6 or 7 years old. Taylor found that a surprisingly number of children had imaginary friends. And she found that children’s development was enhanced with the creation of imaginary friends. (Taylor, 2008)
Imaginary friends are a very common occurrence with children, especially if they are first-born children and are very creative, according to Jerome Singer, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and child study at Yale University. He has studied the life of make-believe with preschoolers and states that two-thirds of preschoolers will have an imaginary friend. These friends can come in all shapes and sizes and may even be an imaginary pet friend. He states that children with imaginary friends are apt to be more cooperative, creative, independent, and happier than their counterparts who do not have imaginary friends. (Singer, 2007)
Like Singer and others in the field, Taylor also finds that the imaginary friend plays a positive and critical role in children’s development. They found that two-thirds of the children created lovable, supportive, agreeable imaginative friends who were positive additions to the family. What about the other one-third of the children? There was some question as to why a child would have an imaginary friend who is not a positive friend. Taylor does address the concerns with these friends who are not so loving and supportive, but actually argumentive, aggressive, overbearing, and out of control.
These troublesome friends have a place in childhood development as well. Having an imaginary friend who requires more problem/solving and social skill development (due to the friction in the relationship) actually plays a role in helping the child cultivate social, emotional, and creative skills that will serve the child well into his/her adult life. (Taylor, 2008) Children are working on the developmental stage of independence and so having an imaginary friend who will break the rules and risk getting into trouble gives the children the opportunity to work through this by exploring what breaking the rules means and what the consequences would be like. It may be a good opportunity for the parent to initiate discussion about why “Kitty-Puppy” would want to bite someone and then to ask if your child has ever felt like that before.
In comparing children with imaginary friends and those without (regardless of whether the friend is a “naughty” friend or a well-behaved friend) Taylor and Shawber found that children develop positive aspects through the creation of an imaginary friend. The research showed the child was able to focus his/her attention, get along with children better, be more sociable and less shy, be more likely to laugh and smile in social situations, and enjoy interacting with others. They also found that these children are more likely to do better on tests of verbal intelligence and creativity. If you have a child in your life who has an imaginary friend, this is likely not surprising as the details and descriptions of these friends can be so real that parents often go to preschool and ask about the child’s friend, only to find that the friend is not real.
From my own personal experience, I have had conversations with Madi as she explains to me that “Kitty-Puppy” ran away and she was so worried about them. The scenario is quite real, bringing out the emotional expression one would truly have in the situation, from the worry of the friends being lost to the delight in finding them and their safe return home. There is a whole array of emotions, including the anger that “Kitty-Puppy” didn’t follow the rules. Researchers have found that these children often develop a strong emotional intelligence. They show an advanced ability to see something through another person’s eyes. (Taylor, 2008) This is understandable as a child with an imaginary friend often will dialogue both sides of the conversation. Through this interaction children are able to develop more perspective of the other side of the story. This may help them develop the skills of seeing the other person’s side.
Play gives children the opportunity to work through resolving their real life scenarios and the difficulties they are experiencing. Imaginary friends also help children work through these issues. Often the interactions going on with the imaginary friend will be similar to the situation in the child’s life. As a parent, you might just listen and pay attention as you may learn what your child is dealing with in his current developmental phase.
The majority of these children are quite aware that their imaginary friend is not real. The only time you may need to be concerned is if your child really can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is fantasy. Taylor stated that during her research with the 100 children, they would often stop her and remind her that these were not real friends. And, in fact, Madi recently reminded me of the this as we talked about Kitty-Puppy.
If your child does have an imaginary friend, be accepting and interested. However, don’t play it out to the point that you set an extra place at the table as your child may read that to be condescending. Just go with it; help your child process as situations come up, allow your child the latitude to play with his/her imaginary friend. And use it as an opportunity to get a glimpse into the inner world of your child.
Singer, D. J. (2007). Is it normal for my preschooler to talk constantly about her imaginary friend? Retrieved May 27, 2011, from Babycenter.com.
Taylor, M. A. (2008, Spring). With Friends like These. Retrieved May 27, 2011, from greatergood.berkeley.edu.
Tags: childhood development and imaginary friends, Imaginary Friends
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
- Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.
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