Picture this: You're sitting down for dinner with your family and your child uses all of his strength to pull up an extra chair. He says, "Here you go, Tommy. Do you want some salad?"
Only, there's no Tommy. There's no one in that chair. But, hey, good for you for offering him some salad, kid. What's a mom supposed to say or do when her kid starts talking to an imaginary friend? Is it normal?
According to Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills child and parent psychotherapist and author, the answer is yes ... even if it doesn't seem that way. Most children create imaginary friends for company.
Many children begin to create imaginary friends around age 3 when imaginary play begins. Some kids grow out of the phase quickly; others may keep an imaginary friend until they're around 8 years old.
"They want a playmate who will cooperate and allow the play to be directed at the imagining child," says Walfish. "Some kids create an imaginary friend out of loneliness. Only children often have a 'regular' imaginary friend they call upon whenever they feel the need for a playmate."
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But imaginary friends aren't just conjured up in their minds of only children. Some kids create them because they have trouble relating to their parents and want someone who understands them unconditionally. Others invent imaginary friends is to avoid accountability. Their friends serve as scapegoats for bad behavior. Everything from talking back to not eating their peas at dinner becomes "Tommy's fault."
The whole imaginary friend situation may make moms feel a little ... shall we say ... awkward? Should you acknowledge the friend? Set him a place at the dinner table? Give him a fake hug? How are moms supposed to balance the fantasy and the reality?
"Moms (and dads) should tell it like it is," Walfish advises. "Say things like, 'It must be fun to play with your special friend Tommy. He's always there when you want company, and all you have to do is reach into your imagination to visit with him. It's a comfort to know you're never alone.'"
There are times when you should be concerned about your child's imaginary friend. For example, does your child believe his imaginary friend is real? Does he assume the personality traits of his imaginary friend? If your child believes he and his imaginary friend are one person, it may be time to explore the issue further with the help of an expert.
If their relationship with their new "friend" hasn't gone that far, however, your child is likely just expressing his creativity. That's not only completely normal but something to celebrate. In fact, research published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology in November 2013 shows that kids with imaginary friends tend to develop better internalized thinking -- which makes them better problem solvers down the line.
So, if there's an extra empty chair at the dinner table, keep your giggles in check, and don't worry about it too much. You're watching them develop critical thinking skills!
Does your child have an imaginary friend? What's their name?
Image via © Samantha Scott/Sam I Am Photography/Corbis