Imaginary companions are an integral part of many children’s lives. They provide comfort in times of stress, companionship when they’re lonely, someone to boss around when they feel powerless, and someone to blame for the broken lamp in the living room. Most important, an imaginary companion is a tool young children use to help them make sense of the adult world.

You can learn a lot about your child — especially the stresses he’s feeling and the developmental skills he’s trying to master — by paying attention to how and when his imaginary companions appear. They usually first appear (at least according to children’s own reports) at around age two and a half to three, which is about the same time children are starting complex fantasy play. The occurrence of imaginary companions and fantasy play tell you that your child is beginning to think abstractly, which is a remarkable event.

Children this age have learned to replace physical objects with mental images of those objects. That may sound a bit strange at first. All it means is that a three-year-old can get a feeling of security by thinking about a favorite teddy bear as well as by holding the bear itself. The abstract image or concept stands in for the physical object.

Children’s Fears

We can see this development of abstract thinking in another important area as well: children’s fears. Infants and toddlers tend to be afraid of such things as a growling dog or a thunderstorm — things that are actually there at that moment. These are known as concrete fears. Preschoolers, however, begin to show different fears. They talk about ghosts in the closet, monsters under the bed, or burglars breaking into their room. These are abstract fears — the things they are frightened of don’t have to be there at the time. From a developmental perspective, a child’s fear of monsters under the bed is a reason for celebration. It tells you that the child is struggling to master the intricacies of abstract thinking.

It also explains why using a concrete approach to the fear, such as suggesting that the two of you check under the bed or in the closet for monsters or ghosts, doesn’t work. Your child will simply reply that the monsters are hiding and will come out later. He’s right, of course, since his fears reside in his head, not in his room.

Empowering Your Child

One way to use an abstract approach to solve this problem is to find some way of giving your child a feeling of control and power over the things that frighten him. For example, when my son was about three and a half years old, he started waking up frightened several times in the middle of the night. He told me there were monsters in his room.

After three episodes of this, I went to the local pharmacy and bought an empty, brightly colored plastic spray bottle. I told my son that it contained Monster Spray, which kept away monsters while he slept. (It’s a good idea to keep the bottle empty, not only to avoid getting liquids all over his room, but to avoid the possibility that it might “run out” when it’s needed the most. Besides, when your child sprays the bottle, he can feel the air rushing out of the nozzle, thus demonstrating that it works!)

I then asked him what would frighten the monsters and keep them away. He pondered for a minute and then told me that a big, growling dog would do that. I drew a picture of a ferocious dog on the plastic bottle.

That night I gave him the empty bottle and told him that if he sprayed under his bed and around his room, it would keep the monsters away. I also suggested that he growl like the big dog on the bottle while he sprayed. He did so, and slept soundly through the night. Equally important, so did my wife and I.

An Imaginary Companion

An imaginary companion serves as a similar, although less dramatic, marker of a child’s development. In fact, one especially creative three-year-old boy, who was seen by a psychologist I interviewed, had an imaginary elf who lived in his bedroom closet. The boy said that his friend the elf would sleep during the day but would come out at night and frighten the monsters away. It was an effective way for the child to handle two important transitions in his life: going to sleep (which is when most children’s imaginary monsters appear) and learning to think abstractly.

Preschoolers and older children may turn to imaginary companions for more practical and short-term problems in their lives. A three-year-old who started attending a new child-care center handled the stress of that transition by inventing a troupe of invisible animals that became his playmates. As soon as he felt comfortable with the other children in the center, and after he’d been regularly included in their play, his imaginary animals quietly disappeared. They were no longer necessary.

Studies of preschoolers conducted at Yale University have shown that imaginary companions, like highly creative fantasy play in general, are most common among firstborn and only children. Dr. Jerome L. Singer, who has conducted much of the research on early creativity, found that children who had imaginary companions were more imaginative, got along better with classmates, appeared happier, and had a richer vocabulary than children who did not.

Some children may keep their imaginary companions to themselves. One study by Dr. Singer found that although 55 percent of the parents of young children said that their child had an imaginary companion of some sort, 65 percent of the children of those parents said that they had one. It’s unclear whether 10 percent of the parents simply didn’t notice their child’s fantasy life, or whether the children didn’t talk about their imaginary friends because they thought their parents might disapprove.

Some preschoolers become so absorbed in their fantasies that they’ll insist that you set an extra plate at dinner or not sit in an empty chair because it’s already occupied by their imaginary friend. You shouldn’t make a big deal over this. In fact, going along with it can be fun. Remember that in almost all cases, having an imaginary companion isn’t a sign that anything’s wrong. It’s a way for your child to feel more secure and to handle everyday stresses.

That doesn’t mean that you should have to go along with all your child’s requests. If you want to set an extra plate at the table, that’s fine. Remember that you can also tell your child that his imaginary friend will have to share a plate with him or must eat from an invisible plate.

Sometimes children will use their imaginary companions to test their limits of allowable behavior. (Having an invisible friend gives the child what politicians call “maximum deniability.” If the child does or says something bad, he can blame it on his imaginary companion.) Let your child know that his friend has to abide by the same rules as he does.

Finally, don’t insist that your child admit that his imaginary companion doesn’t really exist. Rest assured that he knows that. In fact, if you push your child too hard in the other direction, treating his invisible friend as if you truly believed he did exist, your child will probably become upset, and perhaps a bit frightened.