Suzanne Says

Questions & Answers

June 2004

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Question: I was surprised to find one of my questions to you in the April newsletter. However, it was also good to consider your thoughtful reply.

Another question that I have concerns the behavior of my 4-year-old granddaughter, Meg. From time to time her mother and I notice that she participates in a role-playing activity of sorts. She has a pretend friend, named Chloe, to whom and about whom she sometimes speaks.

The most interesting activity is when she does a reenactment of what happens to her when her Mum drops her off at preschool in the morning. I mean she speaks to the preschool teacher telling her pretty much the same time as her mother said to the teacher about herself; e.g., "Now I gave her a "disprin" this morning, but I think she will be OK. If you need to you can phone me at work and I’ll get her dad to pick her up early"…etc.

Meg will do a reenactment of this voluntarily with me or her mother using Chloe as the subject. It is very close to the same thing that her mother has said to the teacher about her (Meg). I asked how old Chloe is the other day and the reply was 5 years old. Her mother asked on another occasion and was told she’s 3 years old.

My question is….Is it "normal" for a little one to have a "pretend friend" and what is going on in the role-playing behavior? To me it feels like there’s some sort of "projection" happening??? Faith S.

Answer: Hi, Faith. It is normal to have an imaginary friend and to work out experiences through role playing in the first few years of life. One child I know did not like having a baby sitter and would repeat to her doll exactly what her mom would say, "You have to have a baby sitter, but I will be back soon." This helped her manage her feelings and conflicts. (I remember one of my daughters had an insightful kindergarten teacher who said on parent’s night, "I promise not to believe everything I hear about you; if you promise not to believe everything you hear about me." She said this because most kindergarten children are in a magical-thinking stage, where they cannot tell the difference, many times, between what someone has said and what they make up in their minds.

They are very creative here and easily make up stories, change details of an experience, etc. Childrens’ imaginary friends are also in this category. Some educators and mental health professionals believe this can be a helpful psychological tool when a child is in a stressful situation. Your granddaughter may cope with going to school and leaving her mom by using her active imagination, imaginary friend, and role playing to process her feelings. I personally had an imaginary friend at the age of four, whom I talked to and who would join us at the dinner table.

Until about 7 years of age, children are in what is called primary process thinking, a time of magical thinking which is not logical or linear. It is a right-brained, creative, and fantasy time of life. One can get clues from a child’s artwork when they are mature enough to begin reading and thinking logically. When you see a drawing with a base line, grass on the bottom of the page in a straight horizontal line and people standing next to each other, they are beginning to think in linear terms and more logically.

The art work of a four year old usually looks random and all over the page, with people and things floating. For example, if you ask a young child to draw their birthday party, they might put a cake down at the bottom of the page; then the next thought they might have is that Mom was there, so Mom gets drawn, and so forth. Again, this is a very non-linear period of time for an individual, which your granddaughter is currently experiencing. A pretend friend, repeating what adults have said verbatim, and role playing with an active imagination are a normal part of growing up and learning to cope with our world.




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