It’s estimated between 25% and 45% of three- to seven-year old children create imaginary playmates*. For most young children, the friends are invisible, but some do take the form of a doll, stuffed animal, or toy.
When asking a child why they have created an imaginary friend, the majority have done so because they found it to be fun. It fills a social need when a real playmate is not available. Most parents, and researchers, believe there are benefits to a child having an imaginary friend; 1. It gives the child a sense of control, 2. They can manage their feelings by transmitting them to the imaginary friend and then giving them the comfort they could be seeking, 3. And, there is an unconditional love from an imaginary friend and gives the child a way to confide something private with judgement.
Imaginary friends help children cope. If they have a situation that they may be fearful of – like moving to a new home – the child can share their concerns or talk through them with the friend as a means to help them prepare for the move. There is a higher likelihood of an imaginary friend joining the family when an important relationship is missing in a child’s life due to a parent divorce or death. A child will create an imaginary person in an effort to heal as they gradually accept their new reality.
Researchers have found that children with imaginary friends tend to be:
- Emotionally well-adjusted
- Outgoing and social
- Verbally skilled
- Developed conversational skills
- Grasp the difference between real and fantasy play
If your child has an imaginary friend, don’t panic or think there is something negative happening inside their head; it’s more “normal” than you realize. As the parent, you can decide how much attention you want to give the imaginary friend in your family. For some parents, they love to see their child enjoy fantasy play while others don’t. Some parents gain insight to their child’s thoughts, emotions and relationships they may be forming while others simply ignore the child’s behavior. Either way, take it in stride and know that this is just one stage of childhood and before you know it he or she will have outgrown this friend – and it just might make you a little sad to see this part of their childhood fade away.
- Karen Stephens, Parenting Exchange, Illinois State University