One of the best parts of being a parent is watching and listening as your child creates hilarious and often remarkably fascinating imaginative worlds. That's why we love storytime, movies, pretend play, and toys at our house. But recently, my husband and I began to worry a little bit when our 6-year-old son adopted an imaginary friend who was particularly adept at getting into trouble.
It was when crayon started appearing on walls and cookies started to go missing from the school snack drawer that I began to wonder if perhaps Jack-Jack (my son's imaginary friend) had overstayed his welcome. But before I could intervene, my husband pointed out that Jack-Jack might be an important figment of our son's imagination; he might be serving a purpose and if we try to put a stop to this imaginary friend play, we may inadvertently be hurting our child. Turns out, he was right.
"It's not a bad thing,” says Samantha Rodman Ph.D., a Rockville, Maryland-based clinical psychologist. “It's usually just a sign of creativity.”
Don't Worry About Imaginary Friends
I wondered why my son needed Jack-Jack at all. He knows that he can have snacks and that we have an art station for drawing. But experts say it’s a helpful avenue for some young children as they start to become more socially aware.
That's why parents may notice imaginary friends pop up when their kids are in preschool, the time when they begin having to negotiate their needs with classmates and teachers, says Julianna Miner, adjunct professor of public health at George Mason University and author of Raising a Screen-Smart Kid. It also a time when they have to follow school rules and start doing more things for themselves like pack up their belongings and remember to leave with their jacket.
“Imaginary friends help them adapt and become more comfortable with both developing friendships and building social competence (something that requires them to be thoughtful of other people's perspectives) and manage their own increasing need for autonomy," says Miner.
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It was her last point that struck a major chord for my husband and me. Our son, in his adorably defiant and creative way, is asking for more freedom, and we totally understand that. As he tries to be a bigger kid and make friends, he's using Jack-Jack to experiment with what all of that means. He's no longer my tiny little kid who relies on me for everything, he's got his own schedule and is with other adults out in the big world.
Stop the Imaginary Troublemaker
While having an imaginary friend isn’t anything for parents to fret about, it doesn’t mean my child running amok with a blue crayon and blaming Jack-Jack for his mess doesn’t get out of hand sometimes. But how could I intervene without getting rid of Jack-Jack?
Dr. Rodman points out that having my child take responsibility for his imaginary friends’ actions makes the most sense. She suggests that I explain to my son that he will be the one to be in trouble when things happen in the house because of his pretend friend. I can soften the blow by giving my son the power to be in charge by saying, “I bet you can speak to him and tell him to behave better.”
And pay attention to the reasons why kids make up imaginary friends to begin with, advises Miner. For example, “if your child is struggling with autonomy, talk to them about how the imaginary friend should be approached about their mistakes," she says.
There are instances where parents may need to get more involved. “If the child keeps acting out via the imaginary friend, though, this could indicate anger or sadness that the child is afraid to directly express,” cautions Dr. Rodman. “In that case, it would be a good idea to sit down with your child without attacking and ask what is on their mind. If this behavior continues, it is never a bad idea to call a child therapist.”
With a few more conversations to smooth out the expectations around having Jack-Jack be a part of our daily life, my son has come to an aha moment in which he clearly understands that having an imaginary friend is cool with us, breaking the house rules is not. In many ways, this was a bigger lesson for my husband and I into the interior world of our imaginative son than it was for our boy on how to behave in our home.