Imaginary companions are an integral part of many children's lives.
They provide comfort in times of stress, companionship when they're
lonely, someone to boss around when they feel powerless, and someone
to blame for the broken lamp in the living room. Most important,
an imaginary companion is a tool young children use to help them
make sense of the adult world.
You can learn a lot about your childespecially the stresses
he's feeling and the developmental skills he's trying to masterby
paying attention to how and when his imaginary companions appear.
They usually first appear (at least according to children's own
reports) at around age two and a half to three, which is about the
same time children are starting complex fantasy play. The occurrence
of imaginary companions and fantasy play tell you that your child
is beginning to think abstractly, which is a remarkable event.
Children this age have learned to replace physical objects with
mental images of those objects. That may sound a bit strange at
first. All it means is that a three-year-old can get a feeling of
security by thinking about a favorite teddy bear as well as by holding
the bear itself. The abstract image or concept stands in for the
We can see this development of abstract thinking in another important
area as well: children's fears. Infants and toddlers tend to be
afraid of such things as a growling dog or a thunderstormthings
that are actually there at that moment. These are known as concrete
fears. Preschoolers, however, begin to show different fears. They
talk about ghosts in the closet, monsters under the bed, or burglars
breaking into their room. These are abstract fearsthe things
they are frightened of don't have to be there at the time. From
a developmental perspective, a child's fear of monsters under the
bed is a reason for celebration. It tells you that the child is
struggling to master the intricacies of abstract thinking.
It also explains why using a concrete approach to the fear, such
as suggesting that the two of you check under the bed or in the
closet for monsters or ghosts, doesn't work. Your child will simply
reply that the monsters are hiding and will come out later. He's
right, of course, since his fears reside in his head, not in his
One way to use an abstract approach to solve this problem is to
find some way of giving your child a feeling of control and power
over the things that frighten him. For example, when my son was
about three and a half years old, he started waking up frightened
several times in the middle of the night. He told me there were
monsters in his room.
After three episodes of this, I went to the local pharmacy and bought
an empty, brightly colored plastic spray bottle. I told my son that
it contained Monster Spray, which kept away monsters while he slept.
(It's a good idea to keep the bottle empty, not only to avoid getting
liquids all over his room, but to avoid the possibility that it
might "run out" when it's needed the most. Besides, when
your child sprays the bottle, he can feel the air rushing out of
the nozzle, thus demonstrating that it works!)
I then asked him what would frighten the monsters and keep them
away. He pondered for a minute and then told me that a big, growling
dog would do that. I drew a picture of a ferocious dog on the plastic
That night I gave him the empty bottle and told him that if he sprayed
under his bed and around his room, it would keep the monsters away.
I also suggested that he growl like the big dog on the bottle while
he sprayed. He did so, and slept soundly through the night. Equally
important, so did my wife and I.
An imaginary companion serves as a similar, although less-dramatic,
marker of a child's development. In fact, one especially creative
three-year-old boy, who was seen by a psychologist I interviewed,
had an imaginary elf who lived in his bedroom closet. The boy said
that his friend the elf would sleep during the day but would come
out at night and frighten the monsters away. It was an effective
way for the child to handle two important transitions in his life:
going to sleep (which is when most children's imaginary monsters
appear) and learning to think abstractly.
Preschoolers and older children may turn to imaginary companions
for more practical and short-term problems in their lives. A three-year-old
who started attending a new child-care center handled the stress
of that transition by inventing a troupe of invisible animals that
became his playmates. As soon as he felt comfortable with the other
children in the center, and after he'd been regularly included in
their play, his imaginary animals quietly disappeared. They were
no longer necessary.
Studies of preschoolers conducted at Yale University have shown
that imaginary companions, like highly creative fantasy play in
general, are most common among firstborn and only children. Dr.
Jerome L. Singer, who has conducted much of the research on early
creativity, found that children who had imaginary companions were
more imaginative, got along better with classmates, appeared happier,
and had a richer vocabulary than children who did not.
Some children may keep their imaginary companions to themselves.
One study by Dr. Singer found that although 55 percent of the parents
of young children said that their child had an imaginary companion
of some sort, 65 percent of the children of those parents said that
they had one. It's unclear whether 10 percent of the parents simply
didn't notice their child's fantasy life, or whether the children
didn't talk about their imaginary friends because they thought their
parents might disapprove.
Some preschoolers become so absorbed in their fantasies that they'll
insist that you set an extra plate at dinner or not sit in an empty
chair because it's already occupied by their imaginary friend. You
shouldn't make a big deal over this. In fact, going along with it
can be fun. Remember that in almost all cases, having an imaginary
companion isn't a sign that anything's wrong. It's a way for your
child to feel more secure and to handle everyday stresses.
That doesn't mean that you should have to go along with all your
child's requests. If you want to set an extra plate at the table,
that's fine. Remember that you can also tell your child that his
imaginary friend will have to share a plate with him or must eat
from an invisible plate.
Sometimes children will use their imaginary companions to test their
limits of allowable behavior. (Having an invisible friend gives
the child what politicians call "maximum deniability."
If the child does or says something bad, he can blame it on his
imaginary companion.) Let your child know that his friend has to
abide by the same rules as he does.
Finally, don't insist that your child admit that his imaginary companion
doesn't really exist. Rest assured that he knows that. In fact,
if you push your child too hard in the other direction, treating
his invisible friend as if you truly believed he did exist, your
child will probably become upset, and perhaps a bit frightened.