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Imaginary Friends: Should I Be Worried?

Your child and her imaginary friend are inseparable, but, most likely, you shouldn't worry about the invisible companion. Imaginary play is important for children's development, and those who had imaginary friends are shown to have more creative problem-solving skills.

little girl playing tea party
Last Thursday, I went to a friend’s house for dinner. As we seated ourselves for the meal, I noticed an extra place setting. My thoughts began to race and I started to question who else was attending dinner: Were my friends springing yet another blind date on me? I soon realized that there was no on else coming; all of the guests were already here. So, who was the mystery guest?

The extra setting was for Leslie Pendergrass, a friend of 5-year-old Veronica’s. Leslie and Veronica, apparently, are inseparable. They spend their time playing, chatting, building forts, and making mud pies. I was so happy to hear that Veronica had found a new friend to play with. Just one thing…Miss Pendergrass is invisible.

During dinner, Veronica explained to me that Leslie is as tall as a ruler, has blond and sparkly colored hair, and her favorite thing to do is tie shoelaces together. Veronica started every sentence with “Leslie and I.” For dinner, Miss Pendergrass requested exactly five peas, half a carrot, and she decided to skip the meatloaf because it “reminded her of cat food.”

According to her mom Rebekah, Veronica invited Leslie over for dinner for the first time about a month ago. The way her daughter would carry on about Leslie lead Rebekah to think Leslie was a friend from school. “Most of the conversations that I have with my daughter revolve around their adventures,” Rebekah explains. She isn’t sure why or when Veronica “met” Leslie and seems none too concerned.

We reached out to Steven Lee, Ph.D., a psychologist in Nyack, to get a better understanding of this fairly common childhood phenomenon and to find out if Rebekah is indeed correct not to worry.

Imaginary Friends 101

Historically, imaginary playmates have been regarded as compensatory creations, used by children who are making up for stress caused by absence of friends or transitions to a new school, home, or town; working through social and emotional issues; and/or dealing with loneliness. “New evidence provides a different perspective,” Dr. Lee says. “Such behavior is not only normal developmental behavior, but it is also commonplace.” 

Imaginary friends are more common than you think.  They can take all different shapes, sizes, and colors. A University of Oregon study done by Marjorie Taylor, Ph.D., author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them, revealed that 65 percent of children up to the age of 7 have or had an imaginary friend. “This evidence does not suggest the absence of anything but may well be more about a creative way of having fun,” Dr. Lee says.

An invisible friend can be a window into your child’s mind, Dr. Taylor says, because the relationship reflects things going on in your child’s life. Listen in on their conversations: Does your child complain about not wanting to go out for recess? Perhaps he is revealing his own fear of socializing. Does he pick his imaginary companion first to play on their imaginary sports team? Or complain about chores? Well, maybe that’s just venting—imaginative play, after all, allows kids to comfortably express negative emotions and helps give them a semblance of control over their surroundings. And while it may seem odd to watch your child talk to someone who isn’t there, Dr. Taylor says it’s important to let the relationship develop creatively on its own.

Real vs. Fake

Your child has “real” friends, so you might be asking yourself, “Why is she inventing new ones?”

“Children are well aware of the fantasy nature of their created friends and do not confuse them for real friends,” Dr. Lee says. If your child insists on the reality of an invented character, Dr. Lee suggests “not to oppose these notions by raising the emotional charge around such fabrications.” Just as a real friend, imaginary friends can boost creativity, foster language development, and encourage self-efficacy in your child.

For parents worried about a child’s long-term relationship with an imaginary friend, Dr. Taylor encourages patience. In a study published in 2010 in the journal Developmental Psychology, Dr. Taylor and her team selected a sample of 152 high-risk children ages 12-13 who were having trouble both in and outside of school. They determined that 13 of those children had imaginary friends. Six years later, at high school graduation, those same 13 students were among the 30 percent who had the best outcomes, meaning they were graduating and had no history with drugs or the police. “We concluded that it is not a red flag for kids that age to have imaginary friends,” Dr. Taylor says. In some cases, it may even be the opposite.

Child’s Play

Jean Piaget, the founding father of childhood psychology, insisted that play is an important factor in a child’s development. Dr. Lee says: “Realize that your child’s play is a developmental path in itself, and the presence of an imaginary playmate is not correlated with any social or emotional issues.” If your child has made a new friend like Leslie Pendergrass, there is no need to panic. Pretending is a part of play—and in the land of make-believe, anything goes.

When to Ring the Alarm

An imaginary friend can occur as early as age 2½ and could extend into the middle school years (age 11 or 12). “As your child enters the interpersonal world beyond preschool, they will not necessarily abandon their invented friends despite the emergence of real friends,” Dr. Lee says. No one knows your child like you. When your child is playing with her friend observe her behaviors and look for any potential red flags. “If there are no other signs of problems in your child’s life, then there is no need to worry,” Dr. Taylor assures. But whether or not she has an imaginary friend, a child who is lonely and depressed may benefit from a visit to a psychologist.

Using Your Own Imagination

Just because you can’t see your child’s friend doesn’t mean you can’t play, too. Ask to join in, or even just ask questions about their day. “Delight in your child’s imagination and provide plenty of opportunities for hands-on play,” Dr. Lee suggests.

A common stereotype of children with imaginary friends is that they’re shy, withdrawn, and have no real friends, but the reality is usually the opposite, Dr. Taylor says. Children with make-believe friends tend to be more imaginative, have richer vocabularies, and are better able to entertain themselves. “Imagination is a strength for children,” Dr. Taylor says. “It can help them build personal strength naturally.”

Gordon Rago contributed reporting to this article.

Also see:

Encourage Your Kids to Be Creative and Curious

How to Help Children with Special Needs Engage in Imaginary Play

The Importance of Imaginary Play for Children on the Autism Spectrum


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