Q: My three-year-old daughter has an imaginary friend
named Maggie. She talks to her all the time, draws with her, and "reads"
her favorite books to her. I even have to set an extra place at the
dinner table for Maggie or my daughter won't eat. Is this okay or should
I be concerned about my daughter's sanity?
A: Having imaginary playmates is a pretty normal part
of growing up--especially in the toddler years—and they serve
several important functions:
- They can be wonderful companions for pretend play, which is an
important way to stimulate creativity and imagination. Having an invisible
friend can make those long trips to the moon or back in time a little
- They can act as a child's trusted confidant when there's no one
else to tell their secrets to. Even small children have issues that
are too private to tell us.
- They can help kids figure out the difference between right and wrong.
Kids sometimes have a tough time stopping themselves from doing things
they know are wrong. Blaming the imaginary friend for eating cookies
before dinner is often a sign that the child understands right vs.
wrong distinctions but isn't quite ready to assume complete responsibility
for her actions.
- They can give you some valuable insights into your child's feelings.
Listening to your child bravely comfort an invisible friend who's
about to get a shot may be a clue that your child is more afraid than
she's letting on.
While it's generally perfectly fine to humor your child and go along
with her claims about the existence of an imaginary friend, there are
a few ground rules:
- Don't let the "friend" be your child's only companion.
Kids need to socialize with others their own ages. If your child seems
to have no other friends or has no interest in being with her peers,
talk to your pediatrician.
- Don't let your child shift responsibility for everything bad to
the friend. Saying that the friend is the one responsible for a nightime
accident is okay. Blaming the friend for a string of bank robberies
- Treat the friend with respect. This means remembering his name,
greeting him when you meet, and apologizing when you sit on him.
- Don't use the friend to manipulate your child. That mean no comments
like "Maggie finished her dinner, why don't you finish yours?"
Most kids lose their imaginary friends between their third and fifth
birthdays. Sometimes the friends are forgotten, sometimes they're sent
on a distant—and permanent—trip, and other times they "die"
in a horrible accident.
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