What is an imaginary friend?
Imaginary friends can be other children, animals, a toy that has come to life, or any other kind of imaginary companion. Children may have more than one friend and they may change frequently or remain the same for varied periods of time.
When do most children have one and when do they stop?
Typically, 2 ½ to 3 years is the most likely age for a child to have an imaginary friend. For how long this imaginary friend will stick around varies from child to child with some children keeping their pal around for only a few months, and some for years. With the majority of children, imaginary friends will be gone by age 8 or 9, but some kids may keep them up to age 12.
How many kids have an imaginary friend?
Studies show that as many as 50 to 65 percent (1) of young children have an imaginary companion, whether it is completely pretend or in the form of a doll or stuffed animal like “Mister Monkey”.
Why would a child create an imaginary friend?
There are many possible reasons a child might have an imaginary friend. Here a few of the more common ones:
- They might create an imaginary friend simply because it is something fun for them to do, and these companions are always willing and ready to play with them.
- It also can provide kids with a sense of control. Young children do not often get to decide what to do, but with an imaginary friend they have control over what or how they are going to play.
- At times it might be to communicate their feelings or something that makes them uncomfortable. Things a child might find difficult to express such as their own dislikes or fears may be easier to communicate through their imaginary friends.
- And one more possible reason – someone to take responsibility for something the child did and does not want to take responsibility for, such as “I didn’t draw on the wall – Mister Monkey did it!”
What’s positive about having an imaginary friend
A study from La Trobe University in Australia (2) discusses many benefits a child may gain from having an imaginary friend including:
- More creativity than peers of the same age who do not. They have created this friend and they are creating the type of interactions they will have.
- More complex language skills -with an imaginary friend the child creates discussions from both sides which requires developing a two- way interaction.
- Better social understanding of others – this two- way interaction may help in building perspective and understanding of the feelings and emotions of another person.
When to be concerned about an imaginary friend
Most of the time, your child’s imaginary friend is nothing to be concerned about, but when do imaginary friends become a concern? (3)
One issue might be that your child is blaming their imaginary friend for things they do, such as damaging or breaking things.
Other warning signs that an imaginary friend may be negatively affecting your child’s development could look like:
- Extreme anxiety when around other children or no interest in observing or playing with other children.
- Frequent hurtful or unacceptable actions they blame on their make-believe companion or their influence
- Fear of their imaginary friend
- Unexplained change in your child’s eating or sleeping habits
Most research has shown that having imaginary friends can be a healthy part of childhood, and may have some benefits. If your child introduces you to their imaginary friend or engages with them in your presence, try to get to know them! Ask your child simple questions about their friend (what is their name, what do they like to play, what is their favourite food, etc.). Getting to know your child’s imaginary friend may give you more insight into your child’s inner world, their likes, dislikes, fears and hopes. (4)
- Taylor, M., Carlson, S. M., Maring, B. L., Gerow, L., & Charley, C. M. (2004). The Characteristics and Correlates of Fantasy in School-Age Children: Imaginary Companions, Impersonation, and Social Understanding. Developmental Psychology, 40(6), 1173–1187. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1618.104.22.1683