Many parents will be familiar with the sound of mutterings coming from their child’s bedroom. If they ask them who they are talking to, the response will usually be: “Nobody!” Studies researching the phenomena of childhood imaginary friends have found that if a parent asks too many questions about the invisible companion or, worse still, tries to interact with them, the friend disappears as miraculously as it arrived. So, when you hear your child chattering away into thin air, it is best not to intervene. It is in the interest of your child’s healthy development to keep their make-believe mate alive, and here’s why…
Imaginary friends give children the refreshing opportunity to tell someone else what to do. Their invisible friend behaves exactly the way they want them to. Your child can be the tallest, fastest or prettiest and is always the winner of the pair.
When it comes to an object of desire, some children fulfil their wish by invention. Children quite commonly invent a family pet or can be heard talking to Spiderman or Snow White in their bedroom.
Beat the bully
Made-up mates can be a useful for boosting confidence, which in turn can help a child stand up to bullies.
Break the boredom
Children with imaginary friends are much less likely to be bored. Make-believe mates demonstrate an ability to be creative with spare time.
Some children use their imaginary friend to convey a message they feel unable to say themselves, such as: “Parsley the Sheep doesn’t like it when you are cross, Daddy”.
An imaginary friend belongs to the person who invents it and no one else. It does not have to be shared with friends or family.
Fantasy friends are far from a poor replacement for real friends. Research reveals that children with imaginary friends are less inclined to be shy and are more popular.
Imaginary friends are particularly common among children with newborn siblings. It is thought that the conjured-up companion provides comfort and replaces any lost parental attention.
Practice makes perfect
A fantasy friend can give a child the perfect opportunity to practice something they want to say to someone in reality. It also gives them the chance to practice their verbal skills, which is why children with imaginary friends tend to be more articulate.
Children with absent family members or lost friends will often reinvent the person in invisible form as a healthy coping mechanism. It is quite common for a child to interact in their imagination with a close companion who has recently left school or a deceased grandparent.
An invisible friend can be a sneaky means of getting an extra portion of food – “Sleeping Beauty would also like some chocolate ice cream, Mum.” Followed by – “I ate Beauty's scoop because she wouldn’t wake up.” Imaginary friends of this kind not only suggest a propensity for creativity but also indicate that you have a clever clogs on your hands!
Somewhat surprisingly, imaginary enemies have also been found to be a healthy coping mechanism. Children may invent someone to thrash out a dispute they are having at school. Research has shown that children with imaginary enemies are more able to manage their anger and understand individual differences.
Some particularly resourceful children find that an invisible chum can be a handy scapegoat – “It was Bob who spilt the juice on your keyboard, it wasn't me” they protest, pointing at thin air.
To your advantage
Whilst a parent should never try to alter their child's imaginary friend, there's no harm into turning his or her's existence to your advantage. You could try: "Oh look, Mr Incredible has eaten all his veg" or "Why don't you have a race with Tinkerbell to see who can get dressed first?"