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When Deborah Tetley is too busy to play with her four-year-old son, Jackson, he invites his friend Dylan over to play soccer or hockey. It works out well for Tetley because she still has only one child to supervise — Dylan is her son’s pretend friend.
Dylan is also a real-life friend of Jackson’s, but since he lives two hours away in Lethbridge, Alta., and they only see each other on summer camping trips, Jackson has to pretend play with him the rest of the year.
Tetley says she was taken aback the first time she saw her son high-fiving thin air. “I was a little startled. The constant question parents ask themselves is, ‘Is this normal?’” But Tetley can relate — when she was five she had an imaginary friend named Timmy who sat beside her at mealtimes.
Here are some more frequently asked questions about imaginary friends:
How common are imaginary friends? Having an imaginary companion is common in preschool and beyond. The pretend pal is often a personified object such as a teddy bear that can talk and play with a child; sometimes it’s an invisible friend like Dylan. According to a 2004 study by University of Washington and University of Oregon psychologists, by age seven, 65 percent of children have had an imaginary companion at some point. Research indicates eldest or only children, like Jackson, are more likely to invent imaginary friends.
Should parents be worried? “It’s not a cause for concern,” says Michael Dickinson, a Canadian Paediatric Society spokesperson and paediatrician in Miramichi, NB. “This can be a routine part of normal childhood development.”
Why do kids create imaginary friends? According to Kimberly Eckert, a registered psychologist in Calgary, children often create playmates just to engage in imaginative play (the way another child might play with action figures), but sometimes they do so when bored or lonely. An imaginary friend can also be used as a form of self-soothing during a big transition, such as adjusting to a new home or sibling. It’s a way for children to practice fledgling social skills in an environment where they’re in control.
Do children know it's pretend? Creating and sustaining an imaginary friendship is a sophisticated cognitive skill, says Eckert. “Kids can separate what’s real life and what’s fantasy life. They know it’s pretend play,” she says.
When do imaginary friends go away? Imaginary companions usually disappear by the time kids head off to school, where pretend friends are less socially acceptable. If your child still has an imaginary friend by grade one or two, evaluate whether it’s preventing him from socializing normally, says Dickinson.
Tetley sees no harm in letting Jackson’s imaginary playdates continue until he grows out of the phase. “We have to let Jackson be who he is,” she says. “He’s just tapping into his imagination.”
A version of this article appeared in our July 2012 issue with the headline "Pretend friends," pp. 52.
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