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Imaginary Friends, Play and Anxiety in Children

Imaginary friends, play and anxiety in children
Imaginary friends, play and anxiety in children

In this week’s Success Newsletter, I would like to reveal the ways that childhood imaginary friends and childhood play protect children from stress, anxiety and depression and instead result in emotionally healthy adults.

First a quick update:

“Child beauty pageants steal the innocence of children and are examples of mothers living out perverted fantasies”
Emotional Mojo TV show hosts Michelle Yarn, Jada Jackson, Tara Gidus and I discuss beauty pageants for children and whether or not America and the rest of the world should follow France’s decision to ban child beauty pageants. Watch the TV interview here.

Now, let’s talk about the ways that childhood imaginary friends and childhood play protect children from stress, anxiety and depression and instead result in emotionally healthy adults.

About two-thirds of children until age 7, have imaginary friends. For the average parent, it could appear to be a concern, worrying about the motivation and consequences of creating an imaginary friend – an invisible friend or a personified object – bears, toys and so forth.

Dr. Benjamin Spock in his 1945-46 edition of “Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” claimed children with imaginary friends were doing so because they were either maladjusted, lacking something in real life or were possibly shy.

However, the creation of imaginary friends is not always about filling an emotional void and every study since Dr. Spock’s misleading claim has, in fact, proven that there are extraordinary benefits for children who have imaginary friends.

In a new 2013 study conducted in Durham and York, in the UK, researchers found that imaginary friends spurs the development of an inner dialogue that children can use to talk themselves through challenging tasks now and later as adults.

Before looking at more of the benefits of imaginary friends, it is also critical for parents to understand that contrary to popular belief, it is actually the extrovert children who are more apt to have imaginary friends – not the introverts. And imaginary friends come in all shapes, sizes, genders and personalities; they are often viewed as role models or idols, not scapegoats. Psychology professor Marjorie Taylor, of the University of Oregon, found in her studies that children knew that their imaginary friends were not real and they could hang onto them until age 7.

Dr. Evan Kidd, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at The Australian National University in Canberra, teaches and conducts research on language acquisition and children’s play. His research reveals that children with imaginary friends are more creative and socially competent, and, he promotes play-based learning as a way to improve the creativity of children.

He found that children ages 3 – 5 with imaginary friends were successful at “Theory of Mind” tasks. Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states – beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. to oneself and others, and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own. In other words, children with imaginary friends could easily take another person’s perspective; they could switch perspectives, have a better understanding of other people’s minds and put themselves in other people’s shoes. This is directly attributable to the fantasy and role-playing that a child engages in when having an imaginary friend (creating a dialogue, personality, story, setting and world for the imaginary friend.)

And as mentioned earlier, the creation of an imaginary friend with a complete story and world also results in problem solving development.

The next benefit of play and imaginary friends is the development of creativity which has also been show to extend into adulthood. As children create these fantasy worlds and characters (paracosms – imaginary worlds), they learn and develop more complex narratives (developing language skills); they become better storytellers, and creative writers.

Drs. Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein, co-authors of “Sparks of Genius, The 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People” reveal that imaginary worldplay (imaginary worlds) is an indicator of creative giftedness; they state that studies of gifted adults reveal strong links between worldplay and mature creative accomplishment in the sciences and social sciences.

The challenge today is that parents who are sincerely concerned with their children’s welfare and academic advancement (in mathematics, numeracy and literacy) are placing extraordinary pressure on their children, depriving of them play and playtime, hindering their development and creating more stress for the child.

“We see many products now being marketed to parents; these are educational products which aim to introduce concepts like reading to children as young as eighteen-months. Now these products appeal to parents who want to give their kids the best start in life; it’s understandable that you’d want to do that, but the problem is a lot of these products have no empirical bases. And time spent memorizing flashcards means less time engaging in pleasurable and beneficial activities like play.” – Dr. Evan Kidd, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at The Australian National University in Canberra.

How critical is play and play-based learning to a child’s development?

“Many children struggle to live up to academic standards that are developmentally inappropriate. Such practices are contributing to high levels of frustration, stress, and anger in kindergartners, sometimes resulting in extreme behavior problems. At the same time that we have increased academic pressure in children’s lives through inappropriate standards, we have managed to undermine their primary tool for dealing with stress – freely chosen, child-directed, intrinsically motivated play. David Elkind’s ‘hurried child’ is now not just hurried but also worried.” – Edward Miller and Joan Almon, Alliance for Childhood, “Crisis in the kindergarten – Why children need to play in school.”

Play based schools and curriculums focus on the principle that children learn by doing what they do best…playing and using all 5 senses. They need to be able to touch, feel, smell, see, & taste.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says free and unstructured play is healthy and critical for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient. It links increases in depression and anxiety to a lack of unstructured playtime. It recommends that children spend at least 60 minutes each day in open-ended play. (American Academy of Pediatrics, Ginsburg et al., “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,” Pediatrics, January 2007)

Other researchers have found that time spent playing outdoors significantly reduces the severity of symptoms of children with attention disorders. (Kuo and Taylor, “A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder,” American Journal of Public Health, September 2004)

Finally, the suggestion for parents is to allow children to be children – to play, interact, have fun and use all of their 5 senses, free of the stress of being what parents what them to be, and understanding that play in childhood results in socially competent adults. “While play protects children’s emotional development, a loss of free time in combination with a hurried lifestyle can be a source of stress, anxiety and may even contribute to depression for many children” – American Academy of Pediatrics.

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I wish you the best and remind you “Believe in yourself -You deserve the best!”

Patrick Wanis Ph.D.
Celebrity Life Coach, Human Behavior & Relationship Expert & SRTT Therapist

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