Friday, December 29, 2006

When Children Have Imaginary Friends

My teenagers will probably be totally embarrassed that I’m telling you this, but they both had imaginary friends when they were younger. My oldest had a best friend that he dubbed "Scooter," while my second son had a whole cast of characters, including "Tinky" and "Tommy." It was quite amusing to have them in the house. Of course, these imaginary friends were easy scapegoats when one of my boys did something wrong ("Tinky broke the lamp"), but they were also great entertainment for the boys. "Mommy," they would ask, "can Scooter stay for dinner? He likes pizza, too." I loved to play along by setting a place for Scooter.

Some parents worry that their kids might be a little mentally unbalanced if they create this fantasy world, but, to the contrary, these children are often very intelligent. These same kids frequently become very creative adults; imaginary friends are just a natural extension of "pretend play." Often, these friends come in the form of children, but they may also be animals or other types of beings.

Experts say that about 65 percent of kids create imaginary friends, most frequently between the ages of 3 and 5. Some continue to play with their friends even when they enter elementary school. And imaginary friends help kids deal with sometimes difficult emotions, such as anger, frustration, or loneliness. They also help children maintain a sense of control, a natural struggle that young children deal with. You’ll notice that this imaginary friend rarely "disagrees" with your child and always follows his lead.

Parents need only be concerned if their child becomes so attached to this make-believe friend that he excludes all others, or if the attachment starts to interfere with his social adjustment. Most of the time, children naturally outgrow their imaginary friends. Sometimes there’s an abrupt break, and your child will announce that "Scotty" moved out of town. But most of the time, they gradually fade away. In the meantime, it’s often fun and informative to listen in on your child’s conversation with his imaginary pal. It provides a window for viewing your child’s creativity and emotions.

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