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Five-year-old unable to separate imaginary play from real life


My 5-year-old son and I have a very close relationship. He thinks I am the most knowledgeable person on earth. When I ask what he would like to be when he grows up, he says “A father.” When he pretend plays, he invariably imitates me. He becomes a father of two kids, “drives” a car, talks to “clients” on his toy cell phone and “works” on a toy laptop.  

What concerns me is that he has difficulty separating this imaginary play from real life. He acts as though he is an adult rather than a child. When I ask him to stop playacting he gets upset. When I ask him a question a parent typically asks a child, such as “Son, what did you have for lunch today?” he ignores the question and resumes his imaginary adult conversation. I know that imaginary play is normal for his age, but I am worried that he no longer recognizes what is real and what is not.



The fact that your son wants so much to be like you must make you proud. Please do not worry about what seems to be an inability to determine real life from his imaginary one. His behavior can and will change with your help.

It sounds like you do work-related tasks at home. If this is true, how much of your work does your son witness? The more you work in your son’s presence, the more he will think this is the way things are supposed to be. This is especially true if your work is conducted in an easy, stress-free manner. It is natural for him to want to play this way.

To shift his focus away from “work” play, plan outings and activities with your son that have nothing to do with work. As often as you can, have your son see you engaged in activities that are purely recreational. If he tries to shift back into “office” mode, tell him that people who work in offices do other activities too. They do not work all the time.

He is likely to become upset. Have a talk with him, saying that even the hardest-working fathers take time off. Keep the conversation simple and on a level he can understand. Having fun is just as important as working.  

If he is still reluctant, try this. Tell him you are going to another part of the house to do something fun. Invite him to come along, but don’t force him or bargain with him to join you. Whatever you choose to do, make sure it is enjoyable for both of you. Then leave the room. Don’t make a big deal out of it, but do make certain that he can hear you laughing and having fun.  

Chances are that he will be curious and join you. He may just watch, or he may ask to ​participate. Give him encouragement along the way. This is a case where actions speak louder than words. You are reinforcing that there are numerous activities in which you both can participate that are not work-related.