First of all, relax. It is a completely natural part of growing up. Imaginary friends can offer a child a pretty easy going playmate and parents a little reprieve from always entertaining the little ones. My own daughter, Kate, has an imaginary friend called “Papa.” Pretend play can be an extremely difficult skill for children with autism so we celebrate and encourage Kate to play with “Papa” even though it can be a little unnerving at times; especially when we have conversations like this (the one reason I’d like to see the last of “Papa”):
They Can Be Creepy
Kate: (As I tuck her into bed) Say night to Papa, Mama.
Me: Where is Papa, Kate?
Kate: He’s under my bed.
Me: (Looking under her bed) There is no one under your bed, silly.
Kate: Well, because he’s behind you now.
Suffice to say, Kate is a bigger fan of “Papa” than the rest of us but we make do because we know how important having an imaginary friend is to her or any child and here is why:
Social Skill Practice
Sometimes kids (autism or not) are unsure of how to interact with their peers. With the help of imaginary friends they can practice social interactions without the fear of rejection. Their fantasy play time can easily be transferred to the playground when needed. Remember, practice makes perfect.
Being the Boss
Children have very little control over their daily lives and having a little control over their imaginary buddy can help them feel grown up. A chance to be the decision maker can be great for their confidence and their mood. Being the boss can be a novel experience for any child. Let them explore how it feels, within reason, of course.
Safe Person to Talk With
Sometimes parents don’t listen; or at least they don’t understand. Your little one’s pretend friend won’t ever be too busy to listen to the entire plot of Toy Story on a loop or the reason they don’t need a nap today. If you have a chatty Cathy on your hands you might relish in the fact that she has someone else to talk to.
It’s not easy being a kid. Once in a while it can be a relief to let someone else take the fall for that broken lamp. This is especially convenient for an only child. Maybe, you might even see fit to give your little one a break. After all, he’s been pretty creative in avoiding trouble.
“Papa” wants you to eat all of your supper so you can grow big and strong like him. Hey, we do what we need to. If your little one’s friend is very important to them, they may wish to emulate their behavior. There is nothing wrong with jumping into the fantasy and pretending you can play with their pretend pal, too.
Your child’s imaginary friend will disappear after a few months or years so take advantage of the best parts of pretend play pals for now. If you’re being honest, didn’t you have a pretend friend or two?