Last month, I spent some time with family, my niece in particular. Her mom was concerned about some new “friends” that have made a recent appearance. Meet: Mouse and Maggie. My niece, Abbie, has created and was fully engaged with Mouse and Maggie. She would sit under the chair and have private conversations with them, yell at them from across the room and most enjoyably, cause mischief. While I thought Mouse and Maggie were fascinating, her mom was getting feedback from others that this type of friendship was not ok. This is how the story often goes. Children who have imaginary friends are often labeled as weird, socially awkward or troubled. However, if we suspend our judgement for a minute we can actually find imaginary friends provide a tremendous opportunity to engage with and understand our children.
First, take a deep breath because your child has actually developed a highly intelligent coping skill. They are engaged in something called projective identification. Projective identification process is something everyone does all the time. Think: me crying during “Marley and Me” when the dog dies. As elusive as projective identification may seem, it plays a vital role in development (self-actualization), specifically emotional intelligence. We utilize identification to process and understand difficult emotions. Mouse and Maggie help Abbie do this. When Abbie felt scared, Mouse and Maggie were there to help her process and externalize the fear. When Abbie got in trouble for not sharing, Mouse and Maggie got the blame. Because imaginary friends are an extension of our minds and selves, they offer an opportunity to widen the window of tolerance around a specific emotion and thus increase our ability to handle difficult things. While Mouse and Maggie, or Tia-mat (my imaginary dragon from my own childhood) may not be physically real, they provide a real experience around emotional awareness leading to stronger coping skills and high resilience.
Second, children with imaginary friends are cultivating a strong sense of connection and competence in their relationships with others and self. Often, a relationship with an imaginary friend involves taking care of or teaching their pal a new skill. They are responsible for their friend’s wellbeing and can derive a sense of self-determination when taking care of another. Self-determination is an area of development that involves autonomy, competence and relatedness. All of which are fostered during a an imaginary friendship. Making sure Mouse is fed each day or included in family movie night creates a sense of advocacy for Abbie as well as connection. Ultimately, this leads to heightened levels of empathy in human connections. The practice of caring for another and loving something outside of themselves promotes empathy, a skill necessary in many facets of life. The importance of empathy encompasses perspective taking, emotional awareness and increased desire to help. Such empathetic growth is not restricted to imaginary friends and can also include the favorite worn out teddy bear or toy.
Knowing the value of imaginary friends can change our response to them. Getting to know your child’s imaginary friend is a window into their internal world. How they feel about their friend, how they interact with them and the role they play in your child’s life is all a giant billboard of how your child feels about themselves and their place in the world. Remember projective identification? This is where we can use that to our advantage to see more deeply into our child’s internal experience. Get curious about the new friend, make space for them at the table (if requested) and allow them to open up about the feelings their imaginary friend is having. While Abbie is insistent that she is not scared about starting school, Mouse and Maggie may be experiencing the pre-school jitters. What a great moment to process Mouse and Maggie’s “feelings” all the while speaking to Abbie’s unsettled emotions.
Take the opening and allow what seemed like trivial child’s play to become a powerful tool.