Updated: Oct 24, 2019
Written by Assoc Prof Dr Alvin Ng Lai Oon, Clinical Psychologist and Founding President of the MSCP
“Mum, you can’t sit there! You’re going to squash Lina!” 5-year-old Aida chides, as Pn Rosnah is about to sit down on the sofa next to her daughter. The mother looks at the empty seat and asks, “Who is Lina?” raising one of her eyebrows quizzically.
Stepping on the “invisible”
Young children often like to make up conversations as they play with their trucks and trains or their dolls, giving each one a unique character. Though role-playing with toys are quite common, so may be an imaginary friend, with your child having a conversation or playing with someone whom you cannot see. Your child’s imaginary friend could be another child around the same age, a magical or fantasy person or even an animal.
An imaginary friend can change over time, as your child goes through certain phases in his life. For some, the ‘friend’ could be an occasional visitor, making an appearance every few days, while for others the ‘friend’ remains a constant companion. Your child would treat his ‘friend’ just like a normal person, someone he sees everyday and can play with. Therefore, it is not surprising if he tells you that you may be stepping on his ‘friend’, sitting at his place or may even ask you to set a place for his ‘friend’ at the table during mealtimes.
Is your child lonely?
Having an imaginary friend may not mean that your child is lonely, it may just mean he enjoys the companionship of someone in addition to his usual, daily, REAL friends. Imaginary friends help your child think more creatively, letting them do things in a different manner. They are also a way of letting your child practice his social skills, so that he would be more comfortable and confident when meeting actual peers. Sometimes, your child may have an imaginary friend just so he could have someone to control and to be in charge of, especially since everyone around him is trying to control his actions. They may even act as a trusted companion – someone they can tell their secrets to, as even young children have issues too personal or may be afraid of telling the adults.
It’s all a part of growing up
Many professionals agree that having imaginary friends are part of a child’s normal development. Instead of being a problem, they can actually help your child deal with some stresses present in their life, also letting you in on some of your child’s fears. When your child comforts his ‘friend’ who is afraid of the dark, it may be that your child is the one actually scared of dark places and by comforting his ‘friend’, he is trying to face his fears as well. You may also be punishing your child more than you need to, or have too many rules for him, thus your child may get into trouble and misbehave, blaming it on his imaginary friend.
Your child may try to manipulate you using his imaginary friend. Sometimes, children use their ‘friends’ to refrain from doing something that they don’t want to.
If you can’t beat them, join them!
Take cues from your child if you’re not sure how to respond to his imaginary friend:
If your child doesn’t seem to want to share his ‘friend’, then do not try to join in their play unless asked to. Usually you will be asked to provide certain things, like setting a place for his ‘friend’ for meals or asked not to sit in a particular chair.
Your child may use his ‘friend’ to take the “blame” for some of the things he does, such as spilling milk or breaking a vase. You can make him learn, by telling him that accidents happen and that he can help you clean up after his ‘friend’.
Try to provide opportunities for your child to meet and play with other peers of his own age. If these games and activities are enjoyable and fun enough, he may slowly begin to lose interest in his ‘friends’ and be more sociable with others.
Remember not to ridicule your child, but rather, gently encourage him to make more friends with his peers. Punishing your child for having an imaginary friend can be counter-productive.
Imaginary friends do not usually pose a problem, and if your child enjoys playing with others as well as doing fun things with you and other children, then there is nothing for you to worry about. As they get older, have more real friends, and are able to face their fears better, their imaginary friends often disappear into thin air. Should your child continue to choose his imaginary friend rather than spending time with buddies his age, then it may help for you to look at what is really going on in his life and try to get him to enjoy doing some real things.