Imaginary Friends: A Real Aspect of Development

It is quite common for children who are three or four years old to have an imaginary friend. This may be another child, or a magical person or animal, and sometimes the imaginary friends change as the child grows older.

Psychology Today reports that 37% of all children develop an imaginary friend.  Interestingly enough, while girls create imaginary friends who are both male and female, boys primarily develop only male imaginary friends.  Many boys interact with their imaginary friends by incorporating game theory, or envisioning them as superheroes.[1]

When a parent first notices that a child has an imaginary friend, you can initially feel taken aback. But the truth of the matter is, it’s nothing to be concerned about, and is regarded as a normal part of development. Often children who have imaginary friends are only children or the oldest sibling in the family. However, having an imaginary friend does not generally indicate loneliness. Instead, it demonstrates the child is creative, and imaginative, and as he or she grows older and school begins, the imaginary friend tends to just quietly disappear. Also, sometimes changes in circumstances can cause children to create pretend friends so that they can self-comfort. For instance, a move to a new environment, a change in schools, or a divorce can precipitate the invention of an imaginary friend.

Imaginary friends can actually help your child in several important ways:

  • They can support children in dealing with strong feelings such as fear or anger.
  • They can allow a child to develop a private life that adults aren’t a part of, promoting autonomy.
  • They can help children deal with real-life stressful situations.
  • They promote getting along with others, and are a safe way for kids to test out actions and feelings.

Imaginary friends can also help parents in identifying problems with their children. For example, if the pretend friend is afraid of the dark, it may be an indication that your child is learning to manage that same fear.

How should you be a part of your child’s relationship with his or her imaginary friend? As always, communication is key, and you should let your child take the lead in how you respond. Imaginary friends can represent a very positive experience for a child, providing an opportunity for he or she to practice communication, appreciate companionship, and even understand behavioral limits. But, parents should always monitor such friendships:

  • Make sure the child also has “real” friends, not just imaginary ones.
  • Refuse to allow negative behavior to be foisted onto the imaginary friend.
  • Treat the imaginary friend’s existence with respect.
  • Don’t use the imaginary friend to manipulate your child’s behavior.

In summary, ultimately imaginary friends will vanish just as suddenly as they first appeared. However, during the time your child has one, just remember that while the pretend friend isn’t necessarily real, the reasoning behind it and the benefits it may provide are. Always support and supervise your child in the situation, and know that the existence of an imaginary friend is really just a part of growing up.




About Susie Almaneih

Susie Almaneih spent several years during her young adulthood teaching children dance at her church group, as well as other cultural-based activities. Susie now spends as much time as she can giving back to the families in her community. Over the years, this love for community has evolved into a deeper love for delivering positive and creative content and awareness to families of all ages.

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