The Answers to Parents

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All in one place for the first time, parents can find answers to the many questions that come up all through a childhood.



The Answers to Parents Most Common Questions


Why does my child have an imaginary friend?

Many parents worry when their children, usually between the ages of three and five, create imaginary friends. Parents wonder, “Why does he need one? Can’t he tell the difference between a real person and a pretend one?” And while they are sometimes amused by their child’s concerns (“Watch out! You’ll sit on Herman!”), they’re more often frustrated.

Yet, an imaginary friend is an important and creative part of growing up for many children. The friend helps a child deal with emotions and problems that he might otherwise not be able to handle. For example, he might invent a companion as a way of relieving loneliness when he moves to a new home, leaving his real friends behind. Or the imaginary friend might help him deal with a new baby in the family, the start of day care or nursery school, or tension at home. Sometimes he creates an imaginary animal, such as a dog, to help overcome a fear of real dogs or because he wishes to have a dog.

If a child feels overly controlled or unaccepted by his parents, he may invent a companion who’s very accepting and who always likes him. He may even become a demanding “parent” to his friend, whom he imagines to be a powerless child: “Herman that was very bad. You shouldn’t have done that.”

Sometimes a child will use an imaginary companion to relieve himself of guilt. Since a child who’s done something wrong fears discipline and the loss of his parents’ love, he may deny his misbehavior even when he’s been caught. If he greatly fears rejection, he may blame his imaginary friend for his own misdeeds. That way he will not have to deal with criticism, responsibility, or bad feelings about himself:

“Herman took the papers off your desk,” or, “Herman made me do it.” In such a situation, parents can say, “I can’t allow you or Herman to play with my papers,” or, “You messed up the papers on my desk and I want you to help me clean them up.”

If your child has an imaginary friend, you may wonder what to do about it. Should you set an extra place at the table, as your child requests, or will your acceptance of the companion just prolong the fantasy? Compromise is the best solution. It’s certainly all right to go along with some of your child’s requests for his imaginary friend. And as long as you are patient with your child, it’s also all right to set limits: “You may talk about your friend, but we’re not going to change our routine for him right now.” If you’re worried because your child believes in an imaginary character, keep in mind that we encourage children to believe in the Tooth Fairy Santa Claus, and other pretend characters. The main difference between these and your child’s friend is that the friend is your child’s own creation.

If you think your child is involved in fantasy because he feels powerless, consider the amount of freedom you allow him. You may want to give him more opportunities to express his feelings and to explore. And if your child seems lonely because of a recent move or the lack of nearby playmates, help him to find real friends who can eventually take the place of the imaginary one.

As your child grows, he will give up his pretend companion, gradually taking on the qualities and responsibilities he assigned to his friend. In time, he and you will look back on this short phase as simply an interesting part of growing up.






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