My 4 ½ year-old daughter, Rachel, has had about 3 or 4 “pretend friends” for about a year now. Up until about a week ago they would just come with us to the grocery store, brush teeth at the same time or play “make believe” with my daughter. But Rachel is now blaming her pretend friends when she gets in trouble. How long are pretend friends normal and how do I discipline a pretend friend?
Rachel’s “pretend friends” likely have names and distinct characteristics; they are real to her. Having imaginary or pretend friends is a normal childhood phenomenon appearing among three-to-six-year-olds. Pretend friends can be animals or objects who children imagine as a reaction to events or circumstances imposed on them, such as and often including parental discipline. Pretend friends are not exclusive to children without siblings or children who are thought to be lonely.
As might be expected, Rachel elicits her pretend friends to take responsibility when she is in “trouble.” Pretend friends show up suddenly or slowly, becoming increasingly apparent. It is rare, however, for children to bring their imaginary playmates to preschool or kindergarten. Pretend friends allow preschoolers to practice roles and express their feelings (especially fears) while benefiting their social and language development. Rachel is able to dictate what her friends do and as you listen, you’ll understand which of her ideas need clarifying. The following 3 tips will help you support your daughter’s imagination without interfering with her creativity:
- Allow your child to introduce, talk about, and bring the pretend friend into action. You would be interfering if you ask about her pretend friends or raise any subjects related to them. Your job is to supportively respond, such as, “Oh, that is what ‘Ricky’ wants? “Hmm, I do see that you placed ‘Ricky’ next to you at the table.”
- Respond with appropriate parental guidance (discipline) when your child tells you she didn’t do it. “Well, you need to help ‘Ricky’ pick up the cheerios on the floor and next time, you and Ricky need to ask mommy or daddy before pulling cereal out of the pantry.”
- Clarify misconceptions particularly when behaviors and comments relate to aggressive actions, express fears, or place your child in a potentially unsafe situation. “It is OK to bring ‘Ricky’ along for the ride but you’ll need to be the one who is strapped into your car seat. ‘Ricky’ can sit next to you.”