Parents want their children to have good friends. But what if that friend exists only in your child’s mind?
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Clinical psychologist Kate Eshleman, PsyD, cares for children and adolescents. She has some reassuring news about imaginary friends — and what you should do if your child has conjured up a companion.
Is it normal for kids to have imaginary friends?
As a child, having an imaginary friend is normal. And not having an imaginary friend? Also normal. “A little over half of all children have an imaginary friend or playmate at some point,” says Dr. Eshleman. “But if they don’t have one, that’s fine too. It depends on the child.”
You might assume that only very young children have imaginary friends, but research has shown that older kids have imaginary pals, too. “It’s common with children up to age 12,” says Dr. Eshleman.
Imaginary friends can be figments of your child’s imagination. Or the friend might be a stuffed animal or toy that they role-play with. Either way, it’s a normal part of childhood for many kids.
Is an imaginary friend a sign of stress or loneliness?
Little Emma talks to her stuffed bear regularly. Does that mean she’s feeling stressed or alone?
Dr. Eshleman says not to worry. “Children might use an imaginary friend to replay or work through things they experience in life,” she explains. “It’s a way to help them practice social skills and process things they see. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong with your child.”
How parents can respond to their child’s imaginary friend
It might feel awkward when your child discusses their imaginary friend with you. But Dr. Eshleman says it’s good for parents to play along.
“Treat your child’s imaginary friend like any other friend,” advises Dr. Eshleman. “Ask your child what their friend’s name is. Or talk to them about what they did with their friend today.”
Maybe your child wants their imaginary friend to have a place at the dinner table. This is OK, too, but you don’t have to take it to extremes. “Don’t give the imaginary friend the last portion of food that someone else would eat,” Dr. Eshleman says. “But if it’s not hurting anyone else, it’s perfectly fine to allow their friend to have a place at dinner.”
When to see your pediatrician
If your child is especially creative, their interactions with their imaginary friend can be quite convincing. How can you be sure your child still understands reality?
“The evidence suggests that kids know their imaginary friends aren’t real,” Dr. Eshleman says. “They may talk about them as if they’re real, but they’re aware that it’s make-believe.”
But to be safe, talk to your pediatrician if your child:
- Seems afraid of their imaginary friend.
- Says their imaginary friend is telling them to do unsafe 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.
A quick check-in with your pediatrician can put your mind at ease. “Remember that you’ll see some behavior changes as your child grows, and this is normal,” says Dr. Eshleman. “But if you’re not sure, it never hurts to ask.”
The perks of imaginary friends
If your child has an imaginary friend, you can reap the benefits, too. After all, an imaginary friend is an awesome listener who’s always available to your child.
“When you’re busy with other tasks, your child can chat with their imaginary friend,” says Dr. Eshleman. “It can keep a child occupied, and that helps the parents out, too. And studies have shown that children who have imaginary friends often grow up to be highly creative adults.”