Research shows that having an imaginary friend is perfectly normal. Nearly two-thirds of children in one study had at least one imaginary friend. And in spite of researchers’ initial expectation that preschoolers would outgrow their imaginary friends before entering school, they actually found that such playmates persisted beyond age 3 or 4 and, in some cases, entered the scene after the children reached school age.
Children’s imaginary friends can take a variety of forms—from invisible beings to personified toys and stuffed animals—and having them seems to be an expression of creativity. The imaginative playmates vary in role; they may act as alter-egos or as wonderful companions.
Children with imaginary friends tend to be creative. They seem to have better verbal skills and a better understanding of social interaction than their imaginary-friendless peers. Some researchers suggest that imaginary friends give children a means of mulling over the confusing issues of childhood, such as good versus bad, and that role-playing with imaginary friends may foster a greater emotional understanding.
When to be concerned
Allow your child to involve you in play or tell you about play with the imaginary friend, so you can identify any problems that may arise. You will want to seek professional help if:
- your child describes her imaginary friend as aggressive, or “forcing” her to do things she does not want to do
- your child prefers only imaginary friends over real ones
In these situations, your child’s pediatrician may recommend a child therapist or psychologist to help identify any underlying concerns or anxieties.
Fortunately, these cases are rare. Generally, try not to make a big deal of your child’s imaginary playmates. Rather, let her enjoy these friendships during this time, knowing that she’ll outgrow this phase of her childhood as her understanding of the difference between reality and fantasy sharpens.