March 28, 2021

Is It OK to Have an Imaginary Friend?

Learn how to handle your child’s make-believe pals

young girl playing with her stuffed animal

Parents want their children to have good friends. But what if that friend exists only in your child’s mind?

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

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.”

Advertisement

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:

Advertisement
  • 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.”

Related Articles

Child hiding behind grandmother and a stranger at a park
January 31, 2024
How To Teach Your Kids About ‘Stranger Danger’ (Without Scaring the Daylights Out of Them)

It’s never too early to teach your kids who strangers are and how to avoid unsafe situations

Child using smartphone and with social media and texts bubbles around him
January 15, 2024
How Social Media Can Negatively Affect Your Child

Too much screen time and unrealistic expectations and perceptions and can lead to an increased risk of anxiety and depression

Children on two different soccer teams running after soccer ball in field.
August 16, 2023
Play Ball! Team Sports Are Good for Kids’ Mental Health

Participating in sports teaches kids life skills and can build self-confidence for the long haul

child dragging heavy backpack
August 9, 2023
Is Your Child’s Bookbag Weighing Them Down? Here’s How To Lighten the Load

For starters, pick the right size backpack for your child, with wide, padded straps

child runs through sprinkler during summer
August 6, 2023
How To Prevent Your Kids From Getting Sick

Hydration and sleep are as important as avoiding dirty surfaces

child having chest pain
June 29, 2023
Chest Pain in Children: When Should You Worry?

Most chest pain in kids isn’t worrisome, but there are some symptoms that deserve attention

Parent and toddler make bed together.
April 2, 2023
When to Transition to a Toddler Bed and Tips for a Smooth Move

Maturity and safety matter more than age

Child and parent meeting with mental health therapist.
February 6, 2023
What To Do and What Not To Do When Your Child Is in Therapy

Be involved in your kid’s care, but be mindful of boundaries

Trending Topics

White bowls full of pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate and various kinds of nuts
25 Magnesium-Rich Foods You Should Be Eating

A healthy diet can easily meet your body’s important demands for magnesium

Woman feeling for heart rate in neck on run outside, smartwatch and earbuds
Heart Rate Zones Explained

A super high heart rate means you’re burning more than fat

Spoonful of farro salad with tomato
What To Eat If You’ve Been Diagnosed With Prediabetes

Type 2 diabetes isn’t inevitable with these dietary changes

Ad