How to Deal with Your Kid’s Imaginary BFF
So, you come home from work and, when you ask your preschooler if she wants a glass of milk, she replies no, but her friend Cuckoo does. Then she looks pointedly at the empty seat next to her. Do you pour the milk for the imaginary friend, or not? Short answer: Yes. Pretend friends are some kids’ way of practicing social skills and learning about the boundaries of their world; by going with the imaginary flow, you’re supporting important growth and development.
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Pretend friends are totally normal
Imaginary besties can be unsettling for parents, but don’t freak out — your child knows her playmate is not real, even if she is seriously invested in the character she has created.
“Many children at some point [during research interviews] want to make sure you’re not confused,” Marjorie Taylor told Science Friday. Taylor, a developmental psychologist, quite literally wrote the book on kids and imaginary friends after years of interviews with children and parents. “They’ll say, ‘You know it’s just a pretend little girl?’”
But also don’t belittle or discourage their interaction! Not all kids will have a make-believe friend, but for those who do, the imaginary playmate is an important developmental tool.
Pretend friends typically emerge in the preschool years, when they help children develop theory of mind (the ability to understand other people have other perspectives) and exercise a burgeoning capacity for considering and responding to contingencies (“What if…?”). They also help children practice important social and verbal skills. Having imaginary friends is no different than a child pretending to be a teacher; it’s just another form of pretend play, itself a critical developmental milestone.
For some children, an imaginary friend is a short-lived (and quickly forgotten) companion; others keep their imaginary friends around until as old as 8 (sometimes even older). Instead of being embarrassed, embrace it — children with imaginary friends aren’t more intelligent than others (that’s just a rumor), but they are extra creative and, if fostered, this creativity can make waves into adulthood. (Mega-star Justin Timberlake has copped to having an imaginary childhood friend, and artist Frida Kahlo is known to have had one.)
Children’s imaginary relationships serve a purpose
You may notice that child’s imaginary friend is kind of a hooligan. Cuckoo may harbour anarchist ideas, be instructing your child to misbehave, or accidentally tear shit up in general. Taylor, in the same article, recalled one interview with a young girl who described her friend — a miniature, veterinarian with pink tie-dyed skin, named Elfi Welfi – as “kind of like a terrorist.”
Children with imaginary friends use their pretend besties to safely the boundaries of their world, of determining what is right and wrong in a way that reveals consequences of actions, but protects kids from them. They didn’t accidentally stain the carpet – their friend did. (What will happen to their friend?) They don’t think mommy is a mean, seaweed-eating buttperson – their friend does. (What happens now?)
Or, pretend friends may be scaredy-cats, whom children comfort (“It’s OK, Cuckoo, the dog looks scary, but he’s nice”) or remind of rules or advice (“Cuckoo, you’re supposed to carry the glass with both hands”). For the child, this can be a coping mechanism, or a way of processing lessons; for parents, it’s a window into kids’ emotional state and growth.
Still other children simply use their imaginary friend as a playmate.
How should parents deal with an imaginary friend?
Follow your kid’s lead.
This is your child’s imaginary playmate and learning experience, not yours. It’s fine to ask as many or as few questions about the friend as you want to know (some children create surprisingly elaborate backstories; others don’t). And it’s fine to interact with the imaginary friend, when joining your child in pretend play – but interact via your child, so it’s her learning that is being stretched. (It’s the difference between asking, “Does Cuckoo like to ride unicorns?” and telling your child, “Cuckoo told me he likes to ride unicorns.”)
Use the imaginary friend to reinforce lessons and values.
If Cuckoo breaks a plate, it’s useless to force your child to admit their own guilt; you’re only setting them up to lie to you. Similarly, if you try to get your child to admit they made up the insult ‘seaweed-eating buttperson,’ you’ll only end up in a futile ‘you said’ ‘no, Cuckoo said’ battle of wills that 100% will drive you, the parent, actually cuckoo.
Instead, use the opportunities to reinforce the lessons and family values you’re trying to instill in your child. If Cuckoo breaks a plate, ask your child to remind Cuckoo to hold it with both hands, then suggest your child helps Cuckoo clean up the mess. If Cuckoo calls you a seaweed-eating buttperson, silently marvel at Cuckoo’s inventiveness, then request your child to tell Cuckoo that language is not acceptable in your home.