Q:Dear WholeFamily Counselor,
I have a six-year-old (one of four girls) who I am a little concerned about. She floats into her own world and talks and plays with imaginary people and it is difficult to get her to snap out of it without tapping her on the shoulder or shaking her. She is so engrossed that she notices little of what is going on around her. However she seems to be managing to find plenty of friends and play normally with them as well. She has been in first grade for two months and seems to be coping OK with that. I am concerned that she misses stuff in class and its a little embarrassing in public when she dances around and has very loud conversations with herself. It also appears aggressive when she plays some imaginary games that people have commented on it. People are telling me it is healthy and normal. Is it at her age? I thought she would grow out of by now.
A:It certainly sounds like you have a very creative and imaginative daughter. Imaginary friends are not an uncommon phenomenon and can last well into childhood. I can understand your concern that she looks odd, or aggressive, but it may pay to focus on the positive aspects rather than the negative.
You mention that she appears to be doing okay in school. I think it would be appropriate to discuss with the teacher how your daughter is doing, and whether her "friend" has made an appearance in school. If she has, is this disruptive in any way? If your daughter has adjusted to first grade (a huge adjustment that many of us adults tend to underestimate) and is able to focus on school work, I would not be overly concerned about this imaginary friend.
In addition, the fact that you mention, that your daughter has friends and plays well with kids her age, further indicates that she has developed important social skills and is not using the imaginary friend as an escape.
If you find that she turns to play more and more with the imaginary playmate, you might try to figure out if there are any new stresses in her life (starting first grade could certainly be one). Understanding that turning to something familiar and comforting like an imaginary playmate is one way of dealing with stress, might help you to accept better what your child is doing.
Studies have shown that children who have imaginary playmates tend to be more creative and intelligent than average. You might look at this finding as proof that your daughter really is a special child and allow you to enjoy her childhood. Imaginary friends, like childhood, do not hang around forever.
Naomi L. Baum, PhD