July 28, 2011


We know from our own professional and personal experience that many children have imaginary friends. As great/grandparents, how do we react to this: Are we the ones to bring reality to the scene or do we participate in the fantasy?

Haven’t you ever wanted someone to be your friend, available day or night, who would: not judge you, not talk when you wanted silence, protect you from scary things, take the blame for any accidents, sympathize with your daily problems and rejoice in your everyday victories, participate in your adventures (real or fantasy) and keep your secrets safe?  During their early years, kids make these friendships possible all the time. Viola, meet your great/grandchild’s “imaginary’ friend.

As we’ve written in other publications: “When children become verbal and until school age, around six years old, one of their major developmental tasks is to learn the difference between reality and fantasy. What is real and what is pretend? They may include an ‘imaginary’ friend, ‘Robin’, in their play, and not want anyone to sit on the empty swing next to them, because it’s being occupied by ‘Robin’. During these years of figuring out what is real and what is fantasy, dramatic play with imaginary friends is a normal and productive exercise.”

If your young great/grandchild has an imaginary friend, it may be puzzling. You may wonder if there is something missing from the child’s life if s/he has to depend on a friend you cannot see, hear or understand. Are tea parties with two place settings and wonderful, intimate conversations an OK thing when the child is the only one present? How about a card-table tent that has room for two astronauts and only the child is talking and acting out a lunar landing with a never-to-be-seen buddy?

Imaginary friends, at this age, can be a comforting and creative way for young children to deal with the joys and stresses of daily life. Wyatt may be able to share his concerns about starting a new school with his imaginary friend, while not wanting to appear afraid to the rest of the world. Emma may be able to talk and think about her siblings in a hateful, but safe way. Jason comments on how unfair things are at home when he has to put away his toys, but his older sister is free to play on the IPad.

Because children’s sense of time is so different than ours, often when children are asked to play by themselves, they may experience the time as loneliness. An hour to a child can be “forever” while an hour to us may seem like not long enough. When some children feel this way, it may call for bringing the imaginary friend into the picture and compensate for feeling lonely

Children could also be concerned with a family’s pressures, and an imaginary friend can come in handy. Margaret Taylor, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, says “this is a common occurrence---over 65% of children have imaginary companions”.

What role do great/grandparents play in this kind of fantasy? Some may feel comfortable entering the fantasy life of the child; joining the tea party or becoming an astronaut. Whether you decide to participate or not, it’s important to be respectful of the child’s imaginative play and understand that this is a normal part of the developmental process. Young children need support in the difficult tasks of growing up. Having an imaginary friend may or may not be the way that these vital childhood challenges are handled. Some children may need their “blankie” or transitional object to help them. Some children may need none of the above, or both. But providing them with the opportunities to create their own unique way of working through these stages gives them the courage to take on the next steps of growing up.