Children play with little friends, jump, run, chat, enjoy, even argue, but… what happens when that friend is imaginary? Is it normal for our son to have one? How can we handle this situation?
An imaginary friend is understood as a little friend that the child creates, with whom he interacts often and about whom he speaks to third parties. Some authors distinguish between imaginary friends and personified objects (such as a stuffed animal or a doll to which the child gives “life”), since the characteristics of the children who choose one or the other seem to differ in some aspects.
Imaginary friends can appear between the ages of 3 and 7 , although there are cases of preadolescents (and even adolescents) who maintain in a certain way (with different characteristics from the smallest) an “unreal” figure with which they have some kind of relationship. of interaction. Their presence is not negative or indicative of pathology (except for specific cases with specific characteristics) so we should not worry: there are many children with imaginary friends, to give you an idea, a study carried out with American children determined that almost 30 % of children between 3 and 4 years old have one (and this only in this age range). Check out more interesting articles on our site The Blog.
Usually these imaginary friends disappear in the same way they appeared , without having to do anything exceptional on the part of the parents.
Do you always imagine another child?
The shape, age, features and even the species of the imaginary friend can vary greatly from one child to another. In a study carried out by Marjorie Taylor , Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, in 2003 (with a North American population), 27% of the children studied imagined another child , 19% an animal , 17% a a child with magical characteristics or powers, 12% a person older than them, and among the rest, babies, ghosts, angels or superheroes were the ways in which they visualized their imaginary friend.
According to this author (and other specialists from the University of Oregon) in her book “Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them” , imaginary friends do not always behave “well”, sometimes they can perform behaviors that are not desired by the child, such as come when called, throw food over them, or mess up the room. So yes, imaginary friends can be quite mischievous.
They are not hallucinations
Imaginary friends, despite the fact that they do not occur in all children, are part of the normal development of children, of the evolution of their imagination and fantasy, it is not a pathological process.
Although it is true that imaginary friends and hallucinations from a clinical point of view have common features, they are not the same , nor do they have the same implications at all, there is a fundamental and key feature that differentiates them: imaginary friends are creations of children, under their control, and are functional figures, that is, the child uses them for a purpose. On the contrary, hallucinations are not voluntary or controlled, the subject does not handle the hallucinatory content (which is invasive) at his mercy. On the other hand, the presence of these imaginary figures does not imply a loss of contact with reality.
Why do imaginary friends appear?
The idea that imaginary friends appear as a compensation for affective deficiencies is due to the fact that the first studies carried out on the subject, back in the 1930s, exclusively had orphaned children who lived in orphanages (of the time, imagine the panorama) . However, in subsequent studies, which already included children living in functional homes, they discovered that there were also cases of friends of this type.
Although it may seem somewhat logical, these imaginary figures do not occur especially in shy children or with difficulty in relating , it is rather the opposite: they are usually not shy children and easily laugh and enjoy themselves in the presence of others, as indicated by Taylor in his study .
For years it has been thought that the appearance of imaginary friends is due in part to the fact that children are at a stage where they do not yet distinguish reality from fantasy, however M. Taylor and CM Mottweiler (among others) in recent studies show that children of 3 or 4 years are capable of making this differentiation. According to research carried out by Paul L. Harris (as stated in his book “The work of imagination”) , the appearance of these friends, far from being negative, helps children in their development process to understand emotions and mind of others , as it is, in a certain way, a kind of role play.
Imaginary friends do not arise “because…”, but “for…”, that is, although we are not talking about exceptional or complicated situations, it is true that these friends fulfill certain functions for children : development of their fantasy and imagination, interactions, play, interpretation of the world, explanation of facts that they do not understand, and even being able to participate in adult conversations (they may not feel expert enough to participate, but their friend “Pepito” may). Hence, it is important, as I will emphasize later, that we, the parents, participate and get to know that figure that accompanies our son , because he is going to give us information about his needs, experiences, coping, etc.
Could they be an alarm signal?
The presence of an imaginary friend should not lead us to think of difficulties or pathologies, however, there are times when they do appear as a response to stressful or traumatic events for the little ones. They can occur in cases in which children do not have the necessary emotional tools (due to evolutionary or personal factors) to face a complicated situation. When to consult a professional?
- When the presence of that imaginary friend is evidencing an avoidance on the part of the child or a method of fleeing from reality : this can happen in occasions and contexts that the child experiences as excessively stressful and that he is not yet able to handle, such as a very complicated separation from parents, the death of a close relative, etc.
- When this “friendship” is negatively influencing their desire to interact with other children, that is, if social withdrawal or isolation occurs.
- When his behavior becomes aggressive as a result of the appearance of the imaginary friend.
What to do if my child has an imaginary friend?
Except for these exceptional cases that I mentioned earlier, and as I have pointed out on several occasions, the presence of invisible friends should not worry us. If our son has an imaginary friend , the main thing is to normalize the situation:
- Ask him about his friend . Whether real or not, the truth is that it is part of our child’s daily life, so it is better to get to know him and what specific characteristics he has (what he does, what he says…): this will help us better understand our little one.
- The rules must be followed , even if it was the imaginary friend who broke them. It may happen that the child tells us that the bedroom is messy because his friend has thrown all the toys on the floor, or that food hanging on the wall has been thrown by “the other”, but in any case, someone has to Pick up the things. Let’s explain to our little one that he was the one who had to pick up, and give him space to do it (obviously it will be his turn, but it is not necessary to show it either).
- Although it may seem strange, integrate your friend into your life normally . For the little one, his little friend is there, he has a voice and a vote, and he can even demand his own physical space (in the car, at the table…): nothing happens to get a little into the rag in his story, so our son You will not feel a rejection from us.
- In case we do not agree with “participating in a lie” : there are families for whom this fantasy is fun and innocuous (such as Santa Claus, the Three Kings or the Tooth Fairy), but for others the fact of trying as real to an imaginary being can be a problem (feeling that they are “lying to the little one” or deceiving him). Each one must be consistent with his educational guidelines, what is important, in any case, always, always, is not to ridicule the child and not to convey that it is something negative , since that could make him feel bad.