Inside: 7 reassuring reasons to roll out the red carpet when your child brings their imaginary friends home + printable keepsake interview.
Do you remember the day your child introduced you to their imaginary friend?
I do, but for all the wrong reasons.
“This is my imaginary brother Ben,” said my three-year-old. I stood there, slack-jawed, while my mind scuttled off someplace dark.
- I remember worrying he might be a loner
- I remember the guilt of not being able to produce a sibling
- And I’ll never forget the horror of thinking something dreadful had happened to him
I should have rolled out the red carpet. Instead, I rolled into a ball and cried myself to sleep imagining the worst.
If your child’s IF has just turned up, you’re probably freaking out, but you’re not alone (and neither are they!).
Some reassuring stats about imaginary friends
According to IF expert Professor Marjorie Taylor:
- Two-thirds of children invent imaginary friends of one sort or another
- Most kids communicate with personified objects, such as toys
- One-third of all children create invisible friends
Which type of IF is your child hanging out with?
We had the boy Ben and his “imaginary imaginary dog” (a figment of Ben’s imagination!).
Who’s most likely to have imaginary friends?
- Oldest children
- Only children
- And children who don’t watch much television
To invent an imaginary friend requires motive and opportunity.
Our child didn’t stand a chance. Did yours?
Time to banish common myths
Is my child a loner?
The stereotypical image is the kid who sits alone in the school lunch hall, avoids eye contact, and mutters to them self.
Professor Taylor found the opposite to be true:
They tend to be more social, less shy, and do better on tasks which require you to take the perspective of another person in real life.
Phew! And the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes is reason to celebrate.
Do they need a sibling?
Without going into gory details, I knew as soon as our son was born he’d be an only child. But Ben’s arrival made my uterus spasm.
If our kids are inventing siblings and friends, surely we need to provide them with real ones to play with?
Kids who personify objects usually have parent-child type relationships with them. They might nurse dolls, teach toys, or tell-off their teddies.
Relationships with invisible friends are more likely to resemble those between real friends. Ben was always up for getting down on his hands and knees to play make-believe knights and dragons.
IFs don’t always play along, though, giving our children a chance to practice useful diplomacy skills.
It also gives them someone to joke around with, without getting laughed at.
And sometimes the friend might try to take the blame when there’s red paint on the cream carpet (true story).
My son is a year younger than Ben.
He doesn’t want a baby. If anything, he wants a BIG brother. I can’t give him one of those, even with a full set of working parts.
Has something unimaginable happened?
Whenever an imaginary friend shows up in a horror movie you know it’s time to hide behind a pillow with your hands over your eyes. But there’s no reason to fear real-life imaginary friends.
Professor Taylor’s research shows IFs are NOT a result of some dreadful event.
They often appear when kids are worried about something, though. Ben always seemed to know when to turn up: the first day of school, on the way to the doctors, and every single time my husband worked away.
Best. Friend. Ever.
Their appearance reminds us our kids might need more love than usual. (Thanks, Ben.) But sometimes they just need someone to chill, play, and work stuff out with.
Where’s the bit about the book, Natasha? (That’s me.)
I usually write about parenting problems and the picture books we used to solve them. But this post has written itself with no mention of a book. I could try to wedge one in, but I don’t think you’d buy it.
Between them, the authors and illustrators have won every prize imaginable. We’ll be reading these books (and reminiscing about Ben) for years to come.
But wait, the books might be useful after all
Research indicates “socially competent and creative adolescents [are] most likely to create an imaginary friend” – a relief for anyone who has older children with IFs.
Sadly, having an imaginary friend in your teens is LESS socially acceptable.
Curling up in bed with old friends like Leo, Fred and Beekle reminds our big kids how normal they are.
I’m going to leave the books in my son’s room just in case.
7 Reasons to Roll Out the Red Carpet
Imaginary friends aren’t a reason to freak out. They might even turn out to be YOUR new best friend.
IFs provide our children with so much:
- Comfort in times of stress
- Companionship when lonely
- Opportunities to develop nurturing and empathy skills
- Problem-solving support and encouragement
- Safe environments to practice social skills
- Chances to be in charge for once
- And scapegoats!
Saying goodbye to imaginary friends
The last time we saw Ben was just before we moved from Australia to America. Our belongings were in boxes on a ship, and we were living out of suitcases in temporary accommodation. The intrepid explorers spent hours climbing the walls of our cramped hotel room.
A month later we moved into our new home in the US, and my son made friends with the slightly older boy next door. Two years on and they’re still best friends.
We never saw Ben again.
Gone but not forgotten
Most children grow out of their imaginary friends once they’re at school (or learn to keep quiet about them).
And many children forget their special friends ever existed. I wish we’d asked more questions about Ben when he was around because none of us can remember much about him anymore.
If you don’t want to make the same mistake, here’s a FREE 3-page printable keepsake interview with space for answers and room for a drawing or photograph.
Just click and print.
Yesterday I asked my son, “What happened to Imaginary Brother Ben?”
“He’s on an exchange trip,” he replied, without missing a beat.
I hope Ben’s new host family gave him the red carpet treatment. The kid deserves it.
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Let’s raise HAPPY literate humans!
I’d love to read about YOUR family’s imaginary friends in the comments box below. (My mother galloped around on a pretend horse until she was “quite old”!)