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Most of the time parents don’t need to panic when imaginary friends appear in the home. Here’s what you need to know.

Imaginary friends have long held our collective imagination captive. Despite their playful and harmless versions, imaginary or play-play friends are all too often the stuff of horror.  It’s not hard to see why many parents see the advent of such a friend as something altogether sinister, if not dangerous. So, imaginary friends – child’s play or something sinister?

It’s a very common response, say the experts. However, they agree that the presence of an imaginary friend shouldn’t necessarily be cause for concern.

Johannesburg-based registered psychologist Dr Janne Dannerup says whether or not to worry depends on the specific child and their situation. She adds that creating play-play friends is more often than not actually “beneficial”. “Creating an imaginary friend indicates a well-developed imagination and resourcefulness, which bode well for a well-balanced life in adulthood,” she explains.

When to seek professional intervention

But there are cases when intervention from a professional may be appropriate. “If the imaginary friend is the child’s only friend and if the child is disinclined to interact with peers for more than six months, then parents should start to be concerned. They should also be concerned if the child repeatedly claims that the imaginary friend is controlling him/her and making him/her do destructive things against his/her will, or if the child experiences the imaginary friend as punitive or hurtful,” advises Dannerup.

She also notes that imaginary friends can provide a “secure place” to escape from emotional or sexual abuse. So, it’s useful to assess whether or not the child has been exposed to any form of abuse. The imaginary friend may be a clue to what’s really been going on.

Thankfully, however, these sorts of reasons for creating imaginary friends are few and far between. If your child has created herself a new playmate, it is likely to be far more benign.  She will probably outgrow the “friend” without any intervention on your part. So imaginary friends are more likely to be child’s play and not something sinister.

Imaginary friends help children deal with emotions

Internationally renowned paediatrician Dr Alan Greene says: “Imaginary friends give parents a great window into what children are thinking. They are a sign of creativity, not of loneliness or stress. You don’t want to dwell on the friend, but, from time to time, joining your son or daughter in the imagination is great. Play-play friends usually disappear within six months, whether or not you encourage them.”

Dr Dannerup says: “An imaginary friend provides the child with a risk-free forum for examining and adjusting to major life changes. The pretend friend may provide an opportunity to practice social skills such as conflict resolution, learning to see things from another’s perspective, and dealing with peer pressure. An imaginary friend also provides an opportunity to explore issues of control, discipline and power without interactions with real authority figures.

“Children often create imaginary friends to resolve feelings. For example, around a new sibling, moving house, parental divorce or death of a grandparent. Even feelings about starting in a new playgroup, nursery school or primary school,” says Dannerup. She adds that most children seem to outgrow their imaginary friends around seven years of age. “Younger children tend to base their creative friends on concrete objects (such as a doll, car, light fixture, toy spaceship etc.), whereas older children are able to create more abstract imaginary friends,” she notes.

Imaginary friends teach children coping skills

In recent findings, it seems that not all children stop imagining friends. Many maintain them into adult life. Some feel that a relationship with God or any deity is much like having an imaginary friend. Others point to the way adult novelists make up characters that seem to hit the page fully formed, dictating their actions as if they were “real” people.

Parents should keep this in mind before panicking, calling in the exorcist, or dragging a happy child off to see a psychologist. “The imaginary friend often provides a way of accessing more intuitive and universal knowledge about what is right or wrong, how to deal with difficult situations, and a safe place to dump worries so as not to carry them,” concludes Dannerup.

Imaginary friends are an extension of the child’s play. Through this play, your child is learning valuable coping skills and creativity that will stand them in good stead as they grow older.

Facts about imaginary friends

  • Children often make up friends during times of stress, such as starting a new school, moving neighbourhoods, or a new sibling’s arrival.
  • Imaginary friends can bolster courage and make children more confident in scary times, like having to walk past a huge dog or sleeping alone in the dark.
  • Play-play friends are often extremely well developed, with a range of specific likes and dislikes.
  • Instead of banishing the imaginary friend, experts suggest you listen to your child’s conversations for clues about your child’s fears and conflicts.
  • Even though children fiercely defend that their friend is “real”, they usually know they are actually pretend.
  • First-borns and bright children may have more imaginary friends than others.
  • Imaginary friends change over time. Your child’s imaginary friend may change into another as they age.

Laura Twiggs