Monday 24 October 2016

The Parent Zone: 'My six-year-old daughter has an imaginary friend. Is this normal?'

Imaginary friends can help children with fears and anxiety
Imaginary friends can help children with fears and anxiety

Should you be worried if your child has a pretend friend and what to do if a child has 'horrible thoughts'

Q: My six-year-old daughter recently moved schools - she starts in senior infants in September this year. She grieved a bit for her old school, although she was only there for a year. She has started talking to her imaginary friends again (Alice and William), who were around when her younger twin siblings were born when she was three.

She seems to use imaginary friends to process change. Is this okay and normal? She seems happy in her new school. Would you be worried about this level of change at her age?

I am not worried about this at all. She sounds as though she is a six-year-old girl with a good and healthy imagination that she can use to help her through times of stress.

Changes of school can be unsettling for children. They must leave all that is familiar to them: friends, teacher, school building, codes of discipline, casual playmates, a curriculum that may change in subtle ways. It isn't easy to deal with all of this and some children are better at it than others.

It is interesting to note that at age seven, about 37pc of children have an imaginary friend, so your daughter is well within normal expected parameters. Invisible friends can be human, animal, fantasy creatures, or something else entirely.

All these things are perfectly normal. Equally interesting is the fact that imaginary human friends aren't always cooperative. Lots of children complain that their friends will not come when called or disobey rules of play.

What may be even more surprising to know is that invisible friends don't always disappear when childhood ends. Some adults report having invisible friends they talk with at times.

Imaginary friends can help children cope with fears and anxiety. They are not a sign of maladjustment in childhood.

When dealing with a child who has imaginary friends, you have some choices: you can go along with the game and put it to good use by asking the imaginary friends to help the child tidy up.

On the other hand, if the imaginary friends are being blamed for making a mess, you may simply say, "I don't care who made the mess, it has to be cleaned up now!".

Q: My son was very distressed this morning. He told me he has horrible thoughts during the day and can't get them out of his head. He also told me that when me and his dad die, he wants to die too so we can all be in heaven together because he'd be lonely on his own and doesn't want to be without us.

He hates being in the room on his own and takes ages to go asleep.

It sounds like your son has much more anxiety than would be expected for a child. He is obviously thinking far too much and inventing problems that do not exist at this time. I wonder if there is a history or family pattern of anxiety. I say this because anxiety is a highly heritable trait in families.

It is very important to recognise the early warning signs of anxiety in children. This is because if it isn't dealt with quickly, it will snowball and grow larger and larger over time. Eventually it can completely overtake the life of the child and interfere with schooling and socialisation.

Unfortunately, constant reassurance is unlikely to help your son. It may be more useful to find out from him just how he experiences his worries.

For example, does he get bad feelings in his tummy or in his arms, hands and legs? Does he see things happening in his head that upset him as if they were on a movie screen?

Anxiety takes so many different physical forms and when we know just how it is striking, we can make some useful interventions.

I suggest you teach your son some breathing and relaxation techniques. There are so many available on CD or on the internet.

I don't think this is going to go away on its own.

If this excessive worry persists over the next month or seems to be getting worse, you will need to get help for your son.

The good news is that anxiety is one of the most easily treated conditions of childhood and responds well to CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) techniques, relaxation, breathing exercises and art therapy.

Monitor the situation and see how your son does over the next month. Be sure you don't unwittingly reinforce his worries by constantly asking him if he is okay.

Also, try as much as possible to maintain your normal routine at home. Changing things around to keep him worry-free will only make matters worse in the long run.


David is a psychologist; send your questions to davidcarey@herald.ie





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