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Child's Imaginary Friend Worries Mom

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: My four-year-old daughter has an imaginary friend named Katie. My daughter is a very creative thinker, but what worries me is how she describes this friend. She says that Katie died in a fire caused by her mother. She describes Katie's bedroom, her favorite toys, etc. She said Katie told her that she went to heaven to be with Jesus and that she misses her teddy bear.

Does my daughter have an overactive imagination? As she relayed these descriptions to me, she was quite animated and used large, complicated words that I had never heard her say before. Should I be concerned?

A: Your four-year-old daughter is indeed a most creative and imaginative child! Most kids' imaginary friends are not dead. Your daughter's imaginary friend died in a horrible manner, and it was her mother who "caused" the fire and Katie's death. I assume that your daughter represents your own Christian religious beliefs of life after death with Jesus, when she says that Katie is now with Jesus in heaven. At the age of four, she would not state that being in heaven is a state of everlasting bliss, so she mentions that her little friend misses her earthbound teddy bear. Your daughter had to have heard the complicated words that she used to describe her imaginary friend -- she did not "imagine" them. If she used this abnormally sophisticated vocabulary in a contextually appropriate manner, then she has been paying close attention to some older people's conversations, comprehending some of the language used and then applying it to her special, imaginary world -- quite a cognitive feat for a four-year-old.

It might help you to engage your daughter in some open-ended discussions of her imaginary friend, in an attempt to get some clues as to whether your daughter was attempting to work through some inner questions, needs, fears, or concerns of her own. If her relationship with Katie becomes more and more intense and frequent, to the exclusion of her socializing with peers and family members and playing with her toys, then I would be somewhat concerned. If her fantasy tales of Katie take on more morbid, frightening or sad overtones, that would also be cause for concern.

You might feel more relieved if you sought a personal consultation with a talented child therapist -- one who sees many children your daughter's age -- and discussed with her in detail the imaginary life of your daughter and her current life apart from her fantasy world. Imaginary friends are usually a healthy extension of a child's cognitive, emotional, and social development. Sometimes they are the child's unconscious, primal, alter ego. Talking with a skilled professional about your daughter and her imaginary friend will help place this particular behavior in context and give you a chance to brainstorm what may be underlying some of the stories in your daughter's fantasy world.

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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.

Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of FamilyEducation.com should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.


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