Your child has introduced you to their new companion, who happens to be invisible. You might be stunned, confused, concerned, or even amused by your child's imaginary friend. Discover how to navigate the arrival of your kid's mysterious friend, understand the meaning behind the friendship, and learn whether there is cause for concern.
What Is an Imaginary Friend?
By definition, imaginary friends, otherwise known as pretend or invisible friends, are psychological and social constructs where a friendship or interpersonal relationship occurs in the imagination rather than in the external, physical realm. The idea of imaginary playmates is nothing new. In fact, kids have been playing with invisible playmates for hundreds of years. It is thought that the development and recognition of imaginary friends began in the 19th century, when a heavier influence was placed on imagination and play in childhood. Known studies surrounding the phenomenon date back to 1890.
Why Do Children Develop an Imaginary Friend?
There is no singular reason why a child decides to strike up a friendship with a figment of their imagination, and oftentimes the exact reason might be a mystery to parents and kids alike. Regardless of why a new imaginary friend has taken up residence in your home, researchers overwhelmingly agree that they can stay, because imaginary friendships are a normal part of childhood.
Broadly speaking, researchers have identified five possible purposes for why children create a pretend pal.
Problem Solving and Emotional Management
Children can utilize their imaginary friends when learning to work on problem-solving skills. Perhaps they are having a disagreement over what to play. You might hear your child using keywords or phrases common to compromise pertaining to the activity at hand. Children might also use their imaginary friends as a sounding board for learning to manage and regulate their emotions. In this scenario, the imaginary friend has likely come into creation so the child has someone to exercise social skills with.
Children might use their imaginary friends to express fear, anxiety, and emotion to adults. A child might tell their caregiver that their imaginary friend Lucy is scared of the dark. The child, in this case, is letting the adult know that they have a fear of the darkness through the imaginary friend.
Exploration of Ideals
Kids learn to create goals and purposes at an early age. They assign value to their goals and purposes and sometimes explore them through imaginary play, with the help of an imaginary friend. An example of this might be a young child who wants to work as a zookeeper someday. They might create an animal-like imaginary friend to help them explore this ideal, or they might create a human-like pretend playmate to dive deeper into this valued life goal or purpose.
Creation of a Companion for Fantasy Play
Some children need a specific companion in roles for fantasy play. Imaginary pals are perfect for this type of play, because they can transform into whatever a child needs them to be. Kids can control the fantasy at full because engaging with imaginary playmates does not contain the same social confines that engaging with actual humans does. No imaginary friend is going to stop the game, change the game, or quit the game, which is enticing to children who want to create fantasy play scenarios.
Combatting loneliness doesn't necessarily mean that a child is deprived of social interaction or desperate for someone to talk to or play with. Creative kids often have plenty of friends at school or in other social settings, as well as involved parents. In downtime at home, they might still call on an imaginary friend to talk to or play with when the mood strikes them.
Exploration of Relationship Roles
Learning roles in relationships is a complex concept for kids, and they may utilize their imaginary friends to work out different roles and scenarios. They might have a young imaginary friend or pet who they care for. In this example, they would be exploring the role of caregiver and nurturer. Another example would be an imaginary friend who acts naughty. They might take on the relationship role of the voice of reason or stabilizer, learning to help another person make better, more sound choices.
Prevalence of Children Who Create Imaginary Playmates
Not only is the creation of imaginary friendships normal, but it is also common. Studies have shown that up to 65% of children under age seven create an imaginary friend. Furthermore, it is as commonly found in school-aged children as it is in preschoolers. UW and University of Oregon psychologists discovered that 31% of school-aged children had an imaginary friend, while 28% of preschoolers also did.
Are Some Children More Likely to Create Imaginary Pals?
Perhaps. Studies have shown that certain children are more prone to creating imaginary friends at one point or another.
- Studies have shown that girls are more likely to have imaginary friends during the preschool years, but this statistic evens out by the school-age years.
- The oldest children in a family and only children tend to create imaginary friends. They likely have the time and creative space to explore this phenomenon more deeply.
- Highly social and creative children have a higher incidence of creating and engaging with imaginary playmates.
- Children with Down Syndrome have a higher rate of developing imaginary friends and keeping them into adulthood.
What Do Imaginary Friends Look Like?
Considering imaginary friends are created by the wonder that is a child's mind, it's no surprise that they can take on just about any possible form one can conjure up. As noted in the study cited above, researchers at the University of Oregon looked at what their cohorts' imaginary friends looked like. Of the study group, they discovered that:
- 57% of the imaginary friends of school-age children were humans
- 41% of the friends were animals
- Children can have more than one imaginary friend at a time
- Not all imaginary friends are "friendly." (It is important to note that even naughty invisible pals serve a purpose for the child, and are not harmful to the child).
Misconceptions About Imaginary Friends
One major misconception regarding children and imaginary friends is that the child who has the pretend playmate is troubled or mentally ill. Previously, psychosis and schizophrenia were the two mental illnesses that parents worried might be lurking under the surface of their child's imaginative excursions. The chances of a child's imaginary friend being a symptom or sign of either of these conditions is incredibly small. Signs of schizophrenia tend to arise when humans are between the ages of 16 and 30, meaning the window of imaginary friendships and this particular mental illness do not align. While childhood-onset schizophrenia is possible, generally showing up between the ages of 5 and 13, it is even rarer than adult-onset schizophrenia, and is likely to come with other profound symptoms such as:
- Significant changes in sleeping and eating habits
- Hallucinations, visual or auditory
Research has also linked imaginary friends to dissociative disorder, a disorder where a person disconnects from reality. Like schizophrenia, the chances of an imaginary friend being related to this disorder is slim, and a child with either of these disorders would also likely exhibit other, more concerning behaviors and symptoms. However, if you are ever concerned about your child's mental health, it is always best to get a professional opinion (or two) on the matter.
A last misconception is children with imaginary friends are deeply lonely. While kids do create friends in their minds to fill periods of space when there is nothing to do, there is no research backing up the notion that invisible friends stem from neglect or isolation. Kids with loving families and ample opportunities for social engagement are likely to create imaginary friends.
The Benefits of Having Imaginary Friends
There are several noted benefits to keeping imaginary friends around, for both children and for parents. These benefits include:
- Increased conversational and vocabulary abilities. Conversing with an imaginary friend provides more opportunities for conversational practice.
- Promotes abstract thinking.
- Aids in coping mechanisms for children.
- Encourages confidence. (There is nothing to be scared of when a child's trusty and reliable imaginary sidekick is ever-present).
- Studies show children who had imaginary friends in younger years grow up to exhibit enhanced creativity as an adult.
- Benefits to parents, as they can use imaginary pals to strike up conversations with kids, gain insight into what is happening in a child's mind, and aid in transitional periods by utilizing the imaginary friend to comfort or soothe.
Supporting Your Child and Their Imagination
Now that you know your child's imaginary friend is a normalized aspect of childhood, and even beneficial to their development, the only thing left to do is to play along. Support your youngster's new friendship when appropriate. You might choose to set a space at the dinner table for the imaginary friend or a spot on the couch for family movie night. Ask if the imaginary friend would like to go on a walk with you and your child, or suggest that the pair of you create an art project for the imaginary friend. Be sure to follow your child's lead regarding their friend, and allow them control over the engagement. Do not try to be the third wheel here. Support and suggest, but allow your child full autonomy over how the imaginary friend comes into play.
To Play Along or Not to Play Along?
Playing along is a fine idea, as long as your kid's little pal is a good influence. If the imaginary friend is naughty, mischievous, or frightening, set boundaries. If your child is adamant that their imaginary friend colored on the wall, tell them this behavior won't be tolerated in your home, and the wall needs to be cleaned, regardless of who caused the mess. Bad behavior should not be tolerated, not by your child, a real-life friend, or one of the mind's making.
There might also be some social situations where imaginary friends don't get an invite. It is okay to tell your child their pal needs to stay home for a spell. Just as you cannot take a pet or oftentimes a favorite toy to certain outings, imaginary friends don't have an open invitation to all that your family does.
Lastly, it is perfectly acceptable to limit the time your child spends with their imaginary friend. You put time constraints on live playdates and activities, and this might be a boundary you need to impose if your child spends a lot of time with their imaginary friend.
When an Imaginary Friend Signifies a Possible Problem
The overwhelming majority of children with pretend playmates are healthy, well-adjusted little humans, and their imaginary friend is a normal aspect of their development. However, certain circumstances pertaining to imaginary friends can cause concern and raise a red flag.
- When the creation of an imaginary friend accompanies other concerning signs and symptoms of a mental illness.
- When a child cannot discern fantasy from reality. (The vast majority of children are well aware that their friend is make-believe).
- When the child refuses to engage with real people and will only engage with their imaginary friend.
- When the imaginary friend encourages your child to harm themselves or others.
If you notice any of these occurrences, seek professional help immediately. Write your observations down so you can best relay your concerns to your child's doctor. Talk to your pediatrician about what you are observing in your child. They can then refer you to the most appropriate professional to address the situation, whether that be a mental health provider or therapist.
All Good Things Come to an End, Even Imaginary Pals
Parents sometimes wonder when their children will bid farewell to their imaginary friends. There is no hard and fast rule on when these friends take a bow and leave lives, but they do go. Like so many aspects of childhood, imaginary friends are something kids eventually grow out of in due time. Knowing this, let your child enjoy the friendship while it lasts.