I discovered that my 4 year-old daughter, Rosa, had an imaginary friend the day I asked why my sofa was covered in lipstick smears. "Dotty did it," she explained. When I asked who Dotty was, Rosa informed me that she was her sister. This was news to me. Over the next few months, I got to know Dotty pretty well: her likes, dislikes, weak-nesses, and inclinations. And when she wasn't breaking into my makeup stash, I was happy to have her around; she was free, endless (and quiet!) entertainment for Rosa.
I'm far from the only mom to be hosting invisible houseguests: 65 percent of kids under 7 have had imaginary friends at some point, according to a study by Marjorie Taylor, Ph.D., author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. And these friends will most likely pop up during the preschool years, when kids have developed the ability for more complex forms of pretend play. Three- and 4-year-olds are also beginning to notice the reasoning behind other people's actions (my brother threw the juice box because he didn't like the taste), which is a critical skill for understanding the perspective of another person -- real or imaginary.
There's no one-size-fits-all standard for these dreamed-up allies. They can be human or completely fantastical. Some stick around for years; others get traded in every few months for a newer model. But what all imaginary friends have in common, says Dr. Taylor, are the benefits they offer to children, helping with everything from problem-solving skills to emotional well-being. Read on for answers to your questions about these imaginary friends.
Will my child still play with his real friends?
Don't worry; your preschooler won't become a lonely introvert who invents friends because he doesn't have any in real life. Dr. Taylor's research found that not only do kids with made-up pals have as many flesh-and-blood friends as other kids, but they also tend to be more outgoing. So why is your child reaching out to an invisible amigo instead of preferring a sibling or a real-life friend to play with? Preschoolers rarely get to call the shots in real life and that's why they enjoy having complete control over their imaginary friends, explains Susan Linn, author of The Case for Make Believe and director of the campaign for A Commercial-Free Childhood, in Boston. If your son's pretend pal is "doing" something he doesn't like, your child has the power to change the situation. Plus, it's just plain fun. "The sheer joy of creating an imaginary world and populating it can be really appealing to children this age," says Linn.
Does my kid actually think her imaginary friend is real?
It's easy to worry that playing along when your daughter asks you to set a place at the dinner table for her panda-bear pal might confuse her about fantasy and reality, but Dr. Taylor emphasizes that this is not the case. Although an imaginary friend may feel as real and special to preschoolers as an actual friend, their creators know they're made-up. "Parents tend to underestimate the ability of children this age to distinguish between fantasy and reality," says Dr. Taylor. In general, by the time kids have developed the skills necessary to create an imaginary companion, they have also developed the skills to know that that friend is pretend. But that doesn't mean your child's not going to want you to play along and treat her new playmate as if he's real, so go ahead and lay out extra dinnerware and ask her how Panda is liking the spaghetti and meatballs.
Can I encourage my kid to make an imaginary friend?
While you can't prompt your child to cook up an imaginary friend, you can provide the opportunity by giving him downtime, quiet, and space. Kids need a chance to get a little bored first in order to shift their imagination into high gear and create a friend from thin air, so switch off the television, computer, and video games. And remember, not all kids develop made-up companions. If yours hasn't acquired any, it doesn't mean he's not creative: it just means that when he doesn't have someone to play with, he would rather be doing something else, like building with blocks or coloring.
My child's fake friend is scared. Does that mean my child is too?
Imaginary companions don't just offer perks for kids but also for parents: "An imaginary friend gives you a window into what your child is thinking about and working through," says Dr. Taylor. If your child comes to you with news that Mr. Itsy Bitsy is scared of making friends or is worried about moving to a new house, she's providing you with an important opportunity to talk through something that may be bothering her. Sometimes it's easier for kids to reveal their feelings through a third party, and there's no reason to press them to take ownership of the feelings. Instead, you can ask open-ended questions, like, "Why do you think Mr. Itsy Bitsy doesn't want to meet new friends at school?" Your child may or may not own up to feeling anxious herself, but if she doesn't you can help ease her worries indirectly. Say, "Yes, sometimes children feel nervous about making new friends, but once they get to school they realize that the kids in their class are really nice, and that it's fun to have someone to play house or Legos with. Do you think Mr. Itsy Bitsy would feel better if he knew that?"
What should I do if this friend is behaving badly?
"Preschoolers are starting to feel pressure about rules, so you'll see kids this age creating alter egos that can do the things they aren't supposed to do," says Linn. If your child's imaginary friend starts cooking up mischief -- like the sofa art credited to Dotty -- it's important to step in. It isn't necessary (or terribly useful) to point out what you both already know, that Mushy the Monkey couldn't have done it because Mushy's not real. Linn suggests playing along, though you still have to enforce consequences. Try saying something like, "Even if Mushy did leave all the toys out after playing in the living room, you're going to need to help clean them up." And remind your kid that rules are rules and imaginary friends need to abide by them too.
Originally published in the January 2012 issue of Parents magazine