Q: My 4-year-old daughter has an imaginary friend called Buster. She talks to Buster, plays with Buster, insists that Buster sit at the table with her, etc. Sometimes, she expects me to talk to Buster too. I’m not sure having an invisible friend is such a good idea. What should I do about Buster?
A: When my oldest was around 4, she had an imaginary friend who accompanied her everywhere—to the park, outside, the dinner table, etc. She talked about this friend for so long, her younger sister (around 2) started talking to her sister’s imaginary friend too. Those were some interesting times in our household, that’s for sure!
I viewed the imaginary friend as a tangible outcome of a vivid imagination, something that we should treasure in our children. Sure, it’s silly and funny and annoying at times, but imaginary friends serve a couple of important purposes for our kids. First, it gives them an outlet for their creative imaginations. Second, it provides them with a safe place to explore their own feelings. For example, sometimes, my daughter’s imaginary friend would do something bad. She would talk about how that made her imaginary friend feel and work through those feelings in a safe place.
As to how parents should react to such a “friend,” here are some tips.
- Don’t overreact. Sure, it can be trying to have your child always talking about someone who isn’t real, but it’s also usually only a sign of a child’s active imagination, not something seriously wrong with the child.
- Give the responsibility to the child. This means if the child wants the imaginary friend to sit at the dinner table, that’s fine. However, the child should be responsible for his “guest’s” behavior. In other words, no spilling milk deliberately and blaming it on the imaginary friend. The child is completely accountable for the actions of the imaginary friend.
- Don’t overindulge, either. I made it a practice to only say “hello” or “goodbye” to my daughter’s imaginary friend. I would say that it was her friend, not mine, so the bulk of the discussion should be between the child and the imaginary friend, not the parent and the imaginary friend. This keeps the play with the child, where it belongs.
Above all, enjoy the silliness that imaginary friends can be for our children. There’s something rather sweet and innocent about a little kid talking to someone who isn’t there. As adults, we’re sometimes overly grounded in reality that we forget the magic that children see and feel and view all around them. For all too short a time, they can touch and experience the wonder of imaginary friends. Reality will intrude as they grow up, so don’t rush them through the magic of this part of childhood too soon.