When my younger brother Bryan started telling my parents and me about his imaginary friend, we were worried. Someone talking to themselves can be jarring, even if that someone is four years old. But what my family discovered is it’s pretty normal for young children to have imaginary friends. And it turns out their temporary existence is beneficial to childhood development.
This post contains videos from the series The Real Guide to Imaginary Companions, courtesy of Science Friday.
Why Do Children Have Imaginary Friends?
Psychologists at the University of Washington and the University of Oregon report that 65 percent of children have had an imaginary companion by age seven at some point in their lives. An adult’s first assumption might be that a child invents a playmate because she lacks friends and struggles with social skills?
Tracy Gleason, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College, says that’s not necessarily true. Dr. Gleason believes imaginary friends help children learn how to consider the thoughts and feelings of someone else. And witnessing a child having a make-believe playdate can let parents better understand what’s going on in their child’s mind.
Research also shows that children who create imaginary friends are often firstborn, an only child, or a child who does not watch much television. Their imaginations could be dialed up because they have more free time alone and increased opportunities to invent imaginary playmates. It is also possible a child is using their friend as a coping mechanism to process a past trauma or any fears she is experiencing.
The Positives of Imaginary Friends
As mentioned, it can be valuable to observe your child’s playtime with their invisible playmate and even lean into the creative process. Ask if their friend has a name. What do they look like? What do they admire about the friend, and what do they not like (research shows not all imaginary companions are friendly; they can be both uncontrollable and a nuisance).
And don’ts be surprised if there’s a revolving door of friends. It’s common for children to have multiple and serial imaginary companions, and having conversations means you may learn something about your child’s current interests, wishes, fears, or concerns. At the same time, don’t hesitate to “parent” if an imaginary friend’s requests or behaviors are unreasonable and harmful.
What if your child doesn’t have any imaginary friends? Psychologist Kate Eshleman at the Cleveland Clinic says that’s fine too. It all depends on the child.
When to Become Concerned
Dr. Eshleman recommends talking to your child’s pediatrician if you observe them displaying any of these behaviors:
- Seems afraid of their imaginary friend
- Says their imaginary friend is telling them to do dangerous things
- Has a change in eating or sleeping habits (though this can be a normal part of development)
- Displays any major changes in their attitude or behavior
- Still has an imaginary friend after age 12
She reminds parents that they’ll witness some behavior changes as their child grows and that it’s normal. However, if there are actions they’re concerned about, it never hurts to ask questions.
Bryan is older now and has retired his imaginary playmates. But he and many others have benefitted from this special chapter of their childhood. Embrace this time and write down the details of your child’s imaginary friend. When they’re older, it will be a special memory to share.
Written by Yohana Franco
Top photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash