Lately, my four-year-old daughter seems to have created two imaginary playmates, Nina and Alisha. She goes on and on about them, saying that they live in Mumbai (we live in New Delhi), are twins, have no parents. They live alone, are very brave, eat “channa and gur”, share their toys...her stories are amazing. Is it okay for her to have these playmates at this age? How should I deal with it? Should I listen to her and encourage her to talk about them?
Having an imaginary friend is very common in preschool kids. You ask if your daughter should be encouraged to talk about them. Up to a point, yes. But not if you get the feeling that she prefers her imaginary world to the extent of showing signs of not wanting to make friends with other kids, or getting very involved in other activities. If this is happening, it could mean that she is using this imaginary pair of friends to fence herself off from engaging with the real world. However, if this is not how it is, it could just be that she has a creative, active imagination.
Dream pal: Is your child’s imaginary friend always on the scene?
You would be the best judge of whether she is totally immersed in that world or whether it is just one of the many things she does. If it is the latter, then you can relax, and perhaps even have her draw them, describe how they look, ask her things such as, “Tell me one very good thing that they did today, and one very bad thing.”
You do mention that she “goes on and on” about them, so I am guessing perhaps it is preoccupying her in a way that you are not comfortable with.
If that is the case, then perhaps you need to gently and subtly restrict (not totally stop) conversations about these “friends”. You could do this by listening and indulging in talk about them and their traits, activities, etc.—but just for a while. After that, pointedly talk about other things—real friends, activities, pets, or whatever subject you like to chat with her about. You could have a ritual about the imaginary friends—such as asking her what they are wearing today or what they did/ate/said. When you make it into a ritual, it stops being part of the whole day, and gets restricted to when you choose to talk about them and indulge this fantasy—such as during milk-drinking, or bathing, or a walk.
There is much psychological research, writing and talk about children (usually between the ages of three and six) conjuring up imaginary playmates. Overall, it is not a bad thing at all (but, as mentioned above, not at the cost of making other real friendships). Psychologists say it demonstrates that your child has the ability to engage in creative and original thought, as well as to use abstract reasoning skills. Look it up on the Internet (keywords: imaginary playmates, or children’s pretend play), and you will get a lot of information.
However, do keep in mind that you are the best judge of the situation and, by remaining aware, will be able to decide whether your child is simply having fun, or avoiding interactions via these imaginary friends.
Send your queries to Gouri at firstname.lastname@example.org