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Imaginary Friends: Everything You Need to Know, but Afraid to Ask

If your child has imaginary friends, there’s no need to panic. It's normal! And understanding will help you support your child and foster their imagination.
ByKristina Cappetta
Published
May 5, 2017
Child playing with an imaginary friend
Image: Shutterstock

You’re downstairs and you hear your child talking to someone in his room. The last you knew he was up there by himself, so you tiptoe up the stairs to see what’s going on. That’s when you realize there’s no one there…at least no one that you can see. When you ask your child who he’s talking to, he answers “Tommy.” When you look around and realize there’s no other child in the room, it hits you…”Tommy” is an imaginary friend. Eek! Is this something that should worry you or is it all a normal part of childhood?

The Big Question: Why Do Kids Have Imaginary Friends?

Once you realize your child has an imaginary friend, or two or three, the big question is why?

  1. Creativity. One reason is that invisible friends let kids use their imaginations. Kids like to be creative and it doesn’t get much more creative than making up people! Compare it to playing with dolls or action figures, except the things they’re playing with are not tangible.
  2. Fill an emotional need. Other kids have imaginary friends to cure boredom or loneliness, although loneliness is hardly ever the real reason. Sometimes imaginary friends “appear” when a child is going through a stressful time like moving to a new town. Since they can’t control the changing situation around them, the imaginary friend is one thing that they can control.

Is It Normal for Kids to Have Imaginary Friends?

After asking why their kids have imaginary friends, many parents often if it’s a red flag that there’s something wrong with their child. Decades ago, imaginary friends got a bad rap, putting their creators under the microscope. Now, researchers and doctors are discovering that it’s more common than not. Psychologists at the Universities of Washington and Oregon found that by age 7, 65 percent of children have had an imaginary friend.

Tammy Gold, licensed therapist, certified parent coach, and founder of the Tammy Gold Nanny Agency, says it is normal for kids to have imaginary friends at the toddler and preschool age. Gold says to be aware that an invisible friend could be an issue for a child if “it affects their daily life, such as the child not ever speaking and using the friend to speak, act and live for them, but this is rare. In most cases, it is totally normal.”

Besides being normal, researchers have also discovered that very bright children tend to have imaginary friends. Studies have shown that kids with imaginary friends also tend to have large vocabularies and use more complex sentences in conversation. Having imaginary friends also helps to boost children’s social skills because they’re creating little worlds that often call for problem-solving skills that can be used in real life.

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How Should I React to My Child’s Imaginary Friend?

This is a big one. Many parents don’t know how to react to their kids’ imaginary friends. Should they ignore them? Ask questions about them? Welcome them?

Gold advises parents not to make a big deal or act worried when it comes to imaginary friends. She says to “ask questions of the [imaginary] friends of the kid to give insight–perhaps the child is wanting to say something they are scared to voice but the [imaginary] friend can. Other times they see a show and simply want to create their fantasy.”

Imaginary friends can give you insight into what your child is thinking. Take this as a little gift as it can sometimes provide valuable information and missing pieces to a puzzle you’ve been trying to solve about your child. By believing in the imaginary friend you are also helping to foster their creativity. If the invisible friend is doing no harm, then let your child run with it.

Will the Imaginary Friend Last Forever?

Just like other developmental phases, as a child grows the phase of invisible friends will eventually disappear. Gold says she has several clients who had kids with imaginary friends. “All of them disappeared or went away with time,” she says. “The children were just trying to show their creative side or have a playmate similar to what they saw on TV.”

While many imaginary friends surface around age 4, a study published by the American Psychological Association found that imaginary friends can last well into school age. If this is the case, know that eventually the imaginary friend will go away. All kids develop at their own speed, and all kids say goodbye to their imaginary friends at their own pace. If you force them to do it before they’re ready, you may be doing more harm than good.

Expert: Tammy Gold, LCSW, MSW, CEC, Licensed therapist, certified parent coach, and the founder of the Tammy Gold Nanny Agency, www.tammygold.com

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