Your toddler has so many friends, from pals at nursery to her favourite toy. But what happens when she starts talking or referring to one that isn’t there? It can be a worry for you – but to her it’s normal. Estimates actually suggest that at least 25% of toddlers have an invisible companion who occasionally appears on demand. And her new mate can disappear as quickly as he arrives, without any real fuss on your child’s behalf. More than 80% of the time, the friend makes an appearance at home. However, around 16% of children ‘activate’ the friend outdoors.
Where did he come from?
Your child’s imagination starts to show through at the age of 18 months, when she begins to use one object to represent another (for instance, her doll represents you). That reasoning continues to develop until she can pretend to be other people in role-play. From there, it’s only a very small step in her imagination to create a make-believe friend. This fictitious figure is sometimes so vivid in a toddler’s mind that she behaves as though he’s actually real. For instance, she might be furious with you if you don’t make room for her pal during story time, or if you close the door to her bedroom before her friend has got through. But even though she behaves that way, rest assured she knows her companion doesn’t exist.
Imagination is good
So if your toddler knows the friend isn’t real, why does she talk to or play with him? There are actually some sound reasons why an imaginary mate appeals to your little one. For a start, the friend doesn’t argue about her choice of toy, or challenge her about the rules of a game. Having someone by her side livens up her day, even when you’re there too. Being in charge of a pal you can’t see gives your toddler some control in her world as it allows her to take charge without anyone else telling her what to do. This boosts her self-esteem and makes her feel good about herself. For instance, a toddler who is afraid to climb may turn to her fictitious friend for emotional support. The pal can offer her constant encouragement and reassurance, and can even congratulate her for trying so hard.
Bear in mind that you don’t have to let your toddler’s imaginary friend rule the roost at home. The next time she insists her friend needs to have his own seat at the table, try telling your toddler there is no room at the moment, or that her friend needs to stay in the bedroom while you eat as a family.
5 imaginary friend guidelines:
1. Take your child seriously. She has her friend for a reason, so avoid making fun of her. (Although there’s no harm in laughing along with her.)
2. Establish limits. She might make excessive demands on behalf of her pal – be prepared to explain why she might have to leave him behind.
3. Interact. Ask your toddler to describe her fantasy companion to you. She might giggle but she’ll be pleased at your interest.
4. Reassure yourself. Having an imaginary friend is not a sign of loneliness; most children with one have plenty of real friends too.
5. Monitor frequency. If the friend appears too frequently and becomes too demanding, this could indicate underlying anxiety.