|Written by The Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital|
Q: My 3 1/2 year old daughter has a new best friend, an imaginary four-foot-tall caterpillar. How should I act or react when her “friend” is with her?
A. Imaginary friends are a very normal and age-appropriate experience during the preschool years; in fact, estimates are one-third to one-half of young children have them. Despite parents’ concerns, research suggests that these children tend to be creative and intelligent, and have as many friends as other children do.
Imaginary friends serve several purposes. They help children adapt to boredom; allow them to use developing skills (a child might practice reading a book to their “playmate”), and help them meet challenges, such as dealing with moving into a new home. Sometimes such companions appear when a child is developing a conscience; the imaginary friend becomes the “bad” person who misbehaves, thereby making the child appear “good.” Most imaginary friends disappear when they no longer serve a developmental purpose, usually around age six.
Children don’t need parents to remind them their friends aren’t real, and a parent should not tease a child for having one. If an imaginary companion misbehaves, a parent needs to be firm with the child about how the behavior is unacceptable. The child, though, should act as the intermediary. For example, if your daughter says her caterpillar spilled her juice on the floor, you can say, “Tell your friend it needs to be cleaned up and you will do it for her.” The child should be the only one in control of the friend, as it is her creation.
Q: I just learned from a neighbor that an older, bully-ish girl has hit and called my kindergartener names while they’ve ridden the bus. What should I tell my son to do in case it happens again?
A. Bullying is a common problem among school children. Having a good set of skills for dealing with bullies will serve your child well. Talk with your child; if he is feeling “picked on,” ask him how he thinks he can stop it. He may come up with some good ideas on his own—and his own instincts will be the easiest for him to carry out. If he needs ideas, try these:
Stand Tall. Practice using strong, but not threatening, body language. Have your child stand tall, look you in the eye, and turn and walk away.
Ignore. This works well the first few times someone bothers you. Don’t look at the bully or react in any way. This makes you a boring target and the bully will probably move on.
Speak UP. When enough is enough, use assertive “I” messages to say, “I don’t like it when you call me names. Stop it.”
Avoid. Whenever possible, steer clear of the problem child and stay in pairs or groups so you are less available.
Humor. This may work better for older children, but some bullies get discouraged when you take the sting out of their “zinger” by making or joke or pretending they were complimenting you. “Thanks for noticing me, I wore this shirt just for you.”
And, of course, if a child ever feels truly threatened, they should run, yell, or get help right away.
Most importantly, remind him that it is the responsibility of the adults in charge to make him feel safe. It is OK to ask for help. Many children will not speak up because they don’t want to tattle. Tattling is what happens when you tell on someone just to get them in trouble. Telling is what happens when someone’s actions or words are harmful or potentially dangerous. If the behavior continues, you should have a talk with the bus driver or other responsible school personnel.
Q: How can I help my newborn get her days and nights worked out? She’s keeping crazy rock star hours.