Most children aged between three and eight years play pretend games and give human personalities to their dolls, stuffed animals, or other toys, engaging with them as though they were alive. Studies suggest that about 40 per cent of children take this pretend play a notch higher to create an invisible companion.
These invisible friends can be in a wide range of forms, which goes to show how imaginative children are. They can be in human or animal form, or even take the appearance of monsters, fantasy creatures, ghosts, or spirits. Invisible companions can appear alone or in groups. Research shows that boys usually have male imaginary buddies, whereas girls can have an invisible male or female friend.
Relationships with imaginary friends
Research shows that there are two kinds of relationships in pretend play:
- Egalitarian-like relationships – these are formed with invisible buddies
- Hierarchical relationship – these are formed with personified objects
In the latter kind of relationship, the child tends to be in charge and accountable, taking care of the personified object, whatever it may be. Children with egalitarian relationships tend to have a better understanding of friendships compared to their peers, but it does not necessarily mean that they relate better with real people.
What should parents do about imaginary companions?
Children who create imaginary friends are usually quite sociable, and they do it because it’s fun – giving them a chance to engage in adult-like conversations.
As a parent, you should deal with it like any other behaviour. If you enjoy it, you can choose to encourage it by asking your child to introduce you to their companion. You can also foster the relationship by acknowledging the existence of the imaginary friend, giving him/her space, meals, etc. Parents who handle imaginary friendships this way tend to view them as creative storytelling activities.
Other parents consider the behaviour inappropriate and based on lies, which may create some conflict. But whether or not a parent finds it entertaining, there are boundaries or limits to what imaginary friends can do. For instance, some parents can suggest that the invisible friend stays home when going to school, church, or to visit family and friends. There are also times when the invisible friend can’t dine with the rest of the family.
Most children admit that they know their imaginary friends are not real. They know that they are just pretend companions, even when they shift blame to them. In a way, it helps them practice having real friends, so you can accommodate it with strict rules. When your child does something wrong and blames it on the pretend friend, you should still hold your child accountable because “they are in it together”.