Does Your Child Have a Make-Believe Friend?
You're about to sit on the couch next to your 4-year-old. Suddenly, she yells, "Don't sit there! You'll crush Jennifer!"
Oops. You should have known better. Jennifer goes everywhere your daughter goes, but you don't see Jennifer. In fact, you never have.
Is it OK for a child to play with a make-believe friend? Actually, it's a natural part of your child growing up. Don't stifle it. Having a make-believe friend is a normal part of your child's growth and usually happens between ages 3 and 6.
Children with make-believe friends learn to talk to people and get along with others. They also learn to explore new things and understand other people's feelings.
One benefit of a make-believe friend is that it keeps the child from being lonely by providing someone for him or her to play with. Make-believe friends are part of a child's development and are harmless.
Don't get upset if your child spills her milk and blames it on her make-believe friend. Ask your child to help clean it up. Be sure to tell your child you know it was she, not her friend, who spilled the milk.
It's OK to go along with your child. But don't let things go too far. An extra glass of juice for the friend is OK, but not a meal.
Talk to your doctor if your child's only playmate is her make-believe friend and she doesn't play with real children. Your child's make-believe friend should go away by age 6 or 7.
Focusing on invisible friends
Talk to your child. Find out who the friend is, what her name is, and what your child does with her.
Ask your child questions. Try to find out the function the make-believe friend has in your child's life. Is your child lonely? Bored? Does your child have anyone else to play with?
Don't put your child down. Having a make-believe friend is a childhood phase that will be outgrown. Let your child enjoy this experience.
Never joke about "leaving" the imaginary friend behind. She may believe you and be frightened for a long period of time.
The American Academy of Pediatrics assures parents of preschoolers that imaginary friends—or animals—are a very creative way to explore emotions, activities, and ways to communicate. So enjoy your child's imaginary world—it may give you new insights into your child's interests and creative potential!
- Foster, Sara, RN, MPH
- newMentor board-certified, academically affiliated clinician