Saturday, May 19, 2012

Make-believe mates

When your child has an imaginary friend, the best thing you can do is go with the flow
Your toddler has a new best friend who is always ready to play, shares their love of Thomas the Tank Engine and never demands special food or toys, or does not have to be picked up and taken home. 
In fact your toddler’s best friend is a figment of their imagination and could change over time into a magical being or a favourite animal.
Many children aged between three and five develop imaginary friends though they sometimes don’t outgrow them until they are at school, sometimes right up to seven years of age.
Imaginary friends give children a way to express their feelings, explore relationships and practice their social skills.
About two out of three children will have an imaginary friend at some stage so it’s very common part of a child’s development and nothing for parents to be concerned about.
However, that doesn’t stop parents from worrying about whether they need more stimulation, or more social skills, or whether they should discourage the imaginary friend or play along. 
Having an imaginary friend is not a sign that your child is lonely (which may be of particular concern if they are an only child), but a sign that they are exceptionally creative and imaginative.
According to one study, children with imaginary friends tended to be better at seeing things from other people’s perspective.
Another study undertaken at La Trobe University by the School of Psychological Sciences found that children with imaginary friends performed better on a test of communication skills than those without, and use more complex language.
Children who have imaginary friends engage in lots of pretend play and this has long been recognised as beneficial in their development.
Imaginary friends serve many purposes.

They are playmates who listen and support your child; they can do things that your child can’t do (the imaginary friend might be the “naughty” one); they allow the child to play creative games and try out different ways of doing things; they are a way for your child to practice getting on with others; they allow your child to be in control; they allow your child to have a private life that adults are not part of; they don’t judge or find fault with your child; they help your child if things in their lives are stressful; they can help your child deal with the feeling of guilt by blaming the imaginary friend if they have done something wrong; and they can help your child deal with strong feelings such as anger or fear.
The way children play with or talk about their imaginary friends can tell you a lot about how they are feeling. They give parents an insight into their child’s inner world including their likes, dislikes and tastes.
But while we encourage active imaginations, imaginary friends can still cause parenting dilemmas, so here’s some tips on what you can do.
If you hear your child scolding their imaginary friend, don’t assume that you have been too harsh with them.
Often this scenario is your child’s way of understanding concepts of authority, right and wrong, and punishment.
At some point your child may ask you to open doors, save a seat in the car, make a snack or a bed for your child’s imaginary friend.
Rather than doing it for them, encourage your child to do these tasks for their friend and this way you are accepting the imaginary friend, but also allowing your child to take some responsibilities and develop their own skills (such as making a bed).
If your child uses their imaginary friend to avoid doing something they don’t want to do, the best approach is to treat the imaginary friend in the same way as the child.
Sometimes children will do or say something they shouldn’t and blame the imaginary friend. You can handle this by telling them that the imaginary friend could not have done it, and follow up with an appropriate consequence, such as cleaning up a mess they have made.
Some children insist of asking their imaginary friends for permission to do things and they may even ask you to speak to their friend, so if this is happening too often, try saying to your child “I want to hear what you think, not what your friend thinks”.
Quite often an imaginary friend can help parents to see an underlying problem. For example, if the imaginary friend is afraid of the dark, it is likely that the child is afraid of the dark and learning to cope with her fears through the friend.
Parents should remember too, that an imaginary friend is often a very private thing for a child, and doesn’t include other real life people.
If your child doesn’t want to tell you about their imaginary friend, let it be, but if you are invited to play, then simply enjoy it and see what adventure your child takes you on.
If your child plays happily with other children, then there is not likely to be a problem with having an imaginary friend.
However, if your child continues to choose the imaginary friend instead of doing things in the real world, then take a close look at what is going on in their life and think about ways to help them enjoy doing real things as well.
It may help to consult a professional to determine if the child has any underlying concerns or anxieties.
Don’t discourage or belittle the relationship your child has formed with their imaginary friend, but don’t become too involved either. 
Remember it’s their world, not yours, so let them take the lead.
Go along with it and try to enjoy this very natural and often fascinating part of your child’s development.


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