Your child's new friend is outgoing, fun, and...well, non-existent. Should you worry about the invisible friend?
Your child and her new friend do everything together. They play, eat, listen to bedtime stories, visit the zoo, take baths, and share the bed. The only problem: You've never seen the friend and your child described him as having bunny ears and a green nose. Huh? Even though it may seem worrisome that your child is spending most of her time alone with someone who's not even real, he's an important part of childhood. Kids develop imaginary friends for a number of reasons.
During the toddler and preschool years, imagination and make-believe are very real to kids. "They believe in the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and other made-up figures, and an imaginary friend is just one of them," says Nathan Blum, M.D., a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and acting associate division chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Because the toddler years and preschool years are a time of many changes, transitions, and new experiences, such as potty training and attending day care or preschool for the first time, some children create friends for support to help them cope. Your child might need a brave friend to be by her side at night if she's afraid of the dark or, if she's shy, her pal might be the only one who understands her feelings.
Believe it or not, imaginary friends are actually ideal companions. Consider the positives: Your kid's buddy is always there when he needs him, he's always agreeable and lets your child choose what to play, and he can go away and come back whenever your child doesn't want to be bothered, without holding a grudge. Pretend friends are also good scapegoats. If a child thinks he will get in trouble for something, the friend can take the blame ("Pammy ate the cookie") and express feelings that might ruffle feathers ("Jack doesn't want a kiss from Aunt Sarah!"). Learn how to handle imaginary friends with these tips.
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Don't Worry Too Much
Don't challenge the existence of the friend or try to force your child to ditch him. Imaginary friends are common and very normal at this age, Dr. Blum says. So don't forbid your child from hanging out with his pal (this will only make the friend more interesting), and don't assume that it's a sign your child is lonely or that something is wrong. Just relax and welcome the new friend into the family (set a table for him at dinner if necessary). In fact, most invisible friends disappear when kids are 4 to 6 years old.
Show Excitement and Interest
Because the imaginary friend might be around for a while, get to know her better. Talk to your child about her friend by asking questions like "Who is your friend?" "What do you two do together?" "Where did she come from?" says Charlotte Reznick, Ph.D., a child educational psychologist, associate clinical professor emeritus at UCLA and author of The Power of Your Child's Imagination. Discussing the friend helps you and your child bond, and it boosts her imagination. Plus, learning more about the imaginary friend could also help you learn about your kid's interests, fears, and feelings. Often, invisible friends share similar likes and dislikes with your child. The friend may also exhibit a specific trait or talent or engage in an activity that your child is curious about but afraid to try. But don't go overboard trying to get to know your kid's pal: If you show too much excitement about the playmate, she might stick around longer, or your child might get jealous and think you're trying to steal her buddy. So don't gush over the friend or invite her places (let your kid extend the invitations), and definitely don't make comparisons between the friend and your child. A good rule of thumb: Ignore the friend unless your child brings her up first.
Set Certain Limits
If the invisible guest is becoming too intrusive on your family life, it's okay to put your foot down. When your child does something inappropriate and then says, "Billy's doing it too" or "Billy's mommy doesn't make him?" let him know that Billy may be allowed to do things at his home, like throw food at dinner or go days without brushing his teeth, but while he's visiting your house, he has to follow your rules. And don't let your child use his little friend to escape consequences. If he points the finger at his pal, remind him that blaming someone for something he did is lying. Tell him you need to hear the truth. Once he confesses, make sure to praise him for his honesty and then follow through with any consequences right away.
Having a make-believe bud is great for pretend play, but you also don't want your child's imaginary life to be more exciting than her real one. Play fun games together, encourage her to hang out with real-life pals and siblings, and take her to interesting kids' events at different places (parks, museums, libraries) to meet other kids her age. Gradually, as she explores and becomes engrossed in the real world, she may bid farewell to her pretend friend.
Copyright © 2014 Meredith Corporation.