Understanding Your Kids' Imaginary Friends
Trying to understand where your kids' imaginary friends came from? Learn which children are more likely to have those friendships and what parents can do to help. A woman who remembers her own childhood friend seeks answers.
When I was three years old, my best friend was Brenda. Brenda was the perfect play pal, always willing to let me choose the game, never mean or nasty to me and, most importantly, she came and went as I wanted—because Brenda was my imaginary friend.
I cannot remember when she first “arrived,” or even when she left for that matter, but I do remember that Brenda was always there when I wanted her to be. One day my mother asked if I was playing with Brenda I told her that Brenda had gone home. I even gave her address and said I was not sure I ever wanted to play at her house.
I did not think about Brenda or the conviction of imaginary play until quite recently when my four-year-old godson went through a phase when he was no longer Daniel but alternately “Bob the Builder” or “Spiderman.”
Dr. David Erickson, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton, Canada and Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Alberta says this behavior of becoming a character is quite common in children as it allows them to step out of any given situation and to create their own reality. If I was not sure to whom I was speaking each day, I was soon notified as most of Daniel’s responses to something he did not want to do were “Don’t speak to me, I am Bob the Builder!” or when reprimanded, “I will put a web on you!”
Why do children have imaginary friends?
“Children develop imaginary friends to help deal with change or times of transition,” says Dr. Erickson. “These may include the birth of a new child in the family, a friend moving away, death of a relative, or starting school.” He says that in some situations a kid’s imaginary friends may develop as a way of exploring her world as it allows her to practice newly developing language and experiment with new roles.
Imaginative play gives children a sense of control over their surroundings—they can scold, praise, or remind their “friend” of things that need to be done and not feel threatened by any repercussions. Pretend friends allow kids to more comfortably express negative emotion, and they also help children deal with extended times being alone by themselves.
Which children are more likely to have imaginary friends?
It is quite common for children between the ages of three and five years to have an imaginary friend, and researchers at Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada say that between 40 and 65 percent of all children have imaginary friends at some point during childhood.
According to Dr. Marjorie Taylor, Ph.D., author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them and Professor and Head of Psychology at the University of Oregon, children with imaginary companions tend to be less shy than their peers and are better able to focus their attention and see things from another person’s perspective.
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