The imagination of a child is bountiful and precious. It preserves a beautiful sense of wonder for the world that many of us have lost as adults. Imagination is said to be the beginning of creation. And where creativity shines, we find the courage to make our dreams take flight.
In a sense, imagination can change the world. However, it is innately human nature to fear the unknown and just as well, it is a parent’s instinct to protect their children. As an adult, it may be difficult to relate to a child’s imagination. Sometimes, movies and stories portray these imaginary characters conjured up by children as evil entities from our worst nightmares. As such, some parents may worry about the dangers of an active imagination.
Hence, this begs the question of whether having an imaginary friend is a type of disorder. Should it be a cause for alarm? The answer is: Not at all, because imaginary companions are really common. Studies have found that 65% of American children have had an imaginary friend at some point of their lives, and children don’t necessarily play with the same imaginary companion throughout their childhood! Having an imaginary friend does not automatically mean your child is suffering from a disorder or trauma. In fact, an imaginary companion could be constructive for a child’s development, as they serve as a healthy outlet for your child’s emotional needs.
Here are some ways an imaginary friend could boost your child’s development:
INSTIL A SENSE OF CONFIDENCE
Standing up for yourself can be tough. Even when you clearly know what’s right or wrong, it can be difficult to pluck up the courage to speak up for yourself and say what you feel honestly – especially if you are alone. Having a friend (imaginary or not) could help children express themselves more freely. A pretend pal could also help your child learn to be in control of situations by practicing decision-making skills and by being a leader.
VIEW THINGS FROM A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
During pretend play with a fantasy friend, the child conjures up conversations from both sides of a discussion. This teaches the child the ability to take on the perspective of another person, and in doing so, learn to be more understanding of others. Studies revealed that imaginary friendships can often help children with real relationships later in life.
DEVELOP A BETTER VOCABULARY
While all that incessant chatter about talking teddy bears and flying horses hardly make any sense, children are actually honing their conversational skills but practicing imaginary speech. Overtime, children with imaginary friends are able to use more complex sentences and have a richer vocabulary, due to constant practice.
BECOME MORE CREATIVE
It’s no easy feat to conceptualize an image of a 3 feet tall elephant with glittery wings and roller blading legs; much less have that said creature play with you for days on end. Unsurprisingly, studies have shown that children who have had imaginary friends are highly inventive. Often, this active imagination is unlikely to become a disorder, but rather one’s source of creativity, even in adulthood.
However, this doesn’t mean imaginary friends are all rainbows and unicorns (literally). While an imaginary friend is a part and parcel of growing up, they may not always be healthy. Parents need to know where to draw the line between healthy imagination and obsessive fantasies.
It is important to pay attention to these signs that could hint at a disorder when it comes to dealing with an imaginary friend:
- When the imaginary friend has a disturbing backstory
- When your child choose to exclude himself to be with his imaginary friend
- When the imaginary friend is often unkind and a bully
- When the imaginary friend is often used as a scapegoat for his own mistakes
- When your child or the imaginary friend starts getting violent or becomes inappropriate
- When your child confuse fantasy with reality too often
With that said, do keep in mind that it is normal for children to have an imaginary friend. It is important that parents refrain from stimulating or repressing their children’s relationship with their imaginary friend, as this could interfere with a child’s active imagination. Simply listen closely to the conversations and you would be able to understand the dynamics of their relationship better. Should your child display any of the unhealthy habits listed above, do seek professional help.
Creative Research Journal. Imaginary Companions in Childhood: Relations in Imagination Skills and Autobiographical Memory in Adults. 2015;27(4):308-313.
Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29670324 (19 June 2019)
Infant and Child Development. Children with Imaginary Companions Focus on Mental Characteristics When Describing Their Real‐Life Friends. 2014;23(6):622-633.
Retrieved from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/icd.1869 (19 June 2019)
Proceedings of the British Academy. Autonomy and control in children’s interactions with imaginary companions. 2007;147:81-100.