It was happening all in her head, but it felt more real to her than anything else.
Linda Davis (name changed on request) wasn’t too bothered at first when her five-year-old daughter Kylie kept chattering to nothing in particular. “She had this little imaginary friend called Lulu, named after our neighbourhood grocery store,” explains the Dubai-based Canadian expat.
“She kept talking about Lulu, day in and day out, and I encouraged it. I would ask questions and be keen on this little world of hers,” adds Davis. Kylie would draw pictures of Lulu, and even imagine her house. She crafted maps to her home, as well. “It seemed very sweet, and I actually did love to see the strange stories that she would craft about this imaginary friend,” says Davis. “It was so entertaining; the stories were a mix of all the bedtime tales that I would tell her and whatever she could watch on television.”
Lulu stayed on adamantly in their household till Davis’s daughter turned seven. Kylie was still reserved about making real friends in school and Lulu seemed her best comfort. “She was an only child at that time and she was still nervous about making friends in school. My husband and I were also busy with full-time jobs. So, jostled between school and a nanny, Lulu was all she had,” says Davis.
When she was six, Davis was concerned. “I did have moments of anxiety, thinking that something was wrong. I tried telling her that Lulu wasn’t real, but she got agitated,” she explains.
A normal part of development
Many parents are often worried about their child’s imaginary friends, thinking it could be early signs of psychiatric problems. However, it is usually a very normal part of development in a child, explains CB Binu, psychiatrist based at the Al Fasht Medical Centre in Sharjah. Imaginary friends are signs of developing social intelligence, he adds, as children are creating new friends with beliefs, personality traits, different from their own.
As the child comprehends that their imaginary friend has different emotions from them, this constant role-play can help in building emotional intelligence and empathy. Parents should just play along, or else, a child gets upset when they’re laughed at, or told that this world isn’t real. “At the end of the day, they know it isn’t,” explains Binu, saying that they still want to be taken seriously.
Imaginary friends exist from the age of three, to eleven, up to 12 is also fine. It is only after 12, do we need to investigate in psychopathology, the scientific study of illness and disorders, adds Binu.
Imaginary friends are not abnormal, or something that shouldn’t happen, reiterates Kshama Lal, a psychologist at GEMS Modern High School in Dubai. “Imaginary friends gives a child emotional support. They can also share their thoughts, emotions without feeling judged. Apart from this, they develop the art of storytelling, and foster cognitive abilities. They’re creating novel scenarios, which benefits their imagination,” she explains. She adds that the children develop problem-solving skills, as they can discuss their problems with imaginary friends, something that they might not want to do with parents. Moreover, it ensures language skills. As they are still developing their language, they use words that they are not sure of. Talking to them helps in sentence construction. They use vocabulary that they are still learning, and it helps their communication skills, explains Lal.
Davis later realised there was nothing to worry as such, Kylie was doing well in school. As she gradually made more friends, the talk of Lulu became less. She was achieving all the childhood milestones such as learning, understanding concepts. So, Davis played along, and by the time Kylie was seven, there was no more talk of Lulu. Kylie was focused more on her real friends. “I also worked hard to spend more time with her. I worked from home often, whenever I could, so I think that helped,” added Davis, who is a PR professional.
Imaginary friends gives a child emotional support. They can also share their thoughts, emotions without feeling judged. Apart from this, they develop the art of storytelling, and foster cognitive abilities. They’re creating novel scenarios, which benefits their imagination.
Now, Kylie, who is 16, has no recollection of any such imaginary friend. “Whenever I bring up Lulu, she thinks I just made it all up,” laughs Davis.
Why children make imaginary friends
For a child, it’s so much easier to slip into a world of make-believe. It’s a mix of fantasy and reality; it’s more exciting than the real world.
Sometimes, it feels safer for them.
Imaginary friends could be a mechanism for multiple reasons, explains Binu. “It could be loneliness, or just simply boredom, which occurs when parents are busy. It also helps them to understand their own experiences and emotions. So the more parents talk about it with the child, they’re able to understand them better.” Children who have gone through major life changes, such as moving to a new home, switching school, getting a new sibling, may get an imaginary friend to help them with this adjustment, explains Waleed Ahmed, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Maudsley Health, Abu Dhabi.
These imaginary buddies usually don’t harm a child, says Danielle Dao, a Dubai-based mental health expert. “It helps them cope, do things they cannot do, be their companion, listen to them and be their unconditional friend. We need to acknowledge their imaginary friend, so children feel respected, heard and loved,” she adds.
Anjali Bakshi from Dubai (name changed on request) has a story to share. Her daughter came up with a new friend 'Nisha', which threw her off. "I was very concerned about this imaginary friend, because back then, such things were not known. I have had three children and 'Nisha' happened with the youngest, so I had never dealt with something like this." For Bakshi, this was rather unnerving. "I did wonder if there was something wrong with her, but she was otherwise very intelligent and achieving all her childhood milestones." Later, Bakshi stopped arguing with her daughter about Nisha, and soon, she stopped talking about Nisha on her own.
Coping with trauma
Imaginary buddies help children cope, do things they cannot do, be their companion and listen to them. Parents need to acknowledge their child's imaginary friend, so children feel respected, heard and loved.
For Rachel de Graaf, her imaginary friend was a saviour.
De Graaf, a Dutch psychologist and a process manager based in Dubai, recalls the traumatic time after she lost her father in a car accident. She was only four, alone with her mother and half-sister.
“I used to play often with this imaginary friend, a boy. My mother kept asking who I was talking to, and I told her that I had this friend in my head. As I was honest with her, she was okay with it at the time,” explained De Graaf. After she began studying psychology, she realised that her imaginary friend was her method of coping with her father’s death, as well as her inability to identify with anyone else in the household. “I was the only coloured child in the family, like my father, so that’s why I couldn’t connect with anyone,” adds De Graaf. When she later tried explaining this to her mother, she was told that she wasn’t a ‘balanced child’.
Children who have gone through major life changes, such as moving to a new home, switching school, getting a new sibling, may get an imaginary friend to help them with this adjustment
However, De Graaf was determined to not let her son feel as if there was something wrong with him. Her son, when he was small, did not say that he had an imaginary friend, but he said that he could see people who had passed away. “I didn’t see any harm in that, as I knew that it will pass,” she adds. De Graaf emphasises that in such situations, if parents are so worried, they should seek help. “But don’t give the child the feeling that they did something wrong, or that they aren’t well in their head,” she adds.
She adds that many parents are ashamed of that their child’s behaviour and try to cover it up, which pushes the child into a corner.
Coping with unsettling changes
Adilah Naji, a Sharjah-based Moroccan national (name changed on request), says that her daughter in childhood had an imaginary friend that she used to play with often. “When she was four, she had this imaginary friend, who was a boy. I played along. I knew it was a coping mechanism for her as we were changing countries.”
The family moved to Denmark, and Naji’s daughter was rather unsettled in the new school. “It was hard for her sometimes. She couldn’t speak the language and had no friends. However, once she started speaking the language, the friend disappeared,” adds Naji.
Dao explains that the ‘imaginary friend’ is also an opportunity to learn about the child. “We can get a better insight on what they are going through. Their true emotions can be expressed easier through this imaginary friend, their needs, what they really need or want from us and we can even improve our parenting skills in this way, not to mention our bond with the child would be strengthened,” she adds.
The red flags that you should watch out for
For the most part, imaginary friends are harmless and are actually beneficial to a child’s development. Yet, what’s crucial is that the children should know that the friend isn’t real.
If the child is afraid or frightened, or if the imaginary friend has turned hostile, then it becomes a matter of concern, explains Binu. “If they say that the ‘friend’ has instructed them to do dangerous, unsafe things, then you need to watch out.” He also explains the tell-tale signs in the child’s behaviour, for instance if they become socially withdrawn and display signs of aggression.
Ahmed warns that if a parent sees their child blaming their imaginary friend for things that they do, parents need to set boundaries. "While it is alright for your child to explore their creativity and coping strategies with imaginary friends, it is not healthy for the child and family to be negatively impacted," he adds. Moreover, watch out if the 'imaginary friend' disrupts daily routines or causes them significant anguish, warns Ahmed. Other warning signs include anxiety around other children to the point of avoiding social interactions, and a change in sleeping or eating habits.
If the child says that the ‘friend’ has instructed them to do dangerous, unsafe things, then parents need to watch out. Other signs of trouble are social withdrawal and aggression.
Parents should pick up on the early signs of psychiatric trouble.
When do parents know if it is a psychiatric problem like schizophrenia?
“See, imaginary friends are usually present in the child’s mind between three to eleven, if we put it arbitrarily. The onset of schizophrenia is between 15 to 25. In women, it’s between 25-30. The age group itself is different. So it is very rare to have early onset of schizophrenia; it’s not impossible, but it is rather unlikely that a child of around 12 will show obvious symptoms,” says Binu. Ahmed complements this point and says that parents should worry if their child is in fact experiencing hallucinations in the context of imaginary friends.
Source: US-based Psychiatry.org
He elaborates that schizophrenia isn’t just one symptom; there are multiple signs. “An early sign could be when the children do not respond, or they like to be alone and it can even be in the form of depression. They could also experience paranoid delusions. It’s a very severe kind of disorder, and if parents catch the early red flags as mentioned earlier, they should seek help,” he adds.