Many parents accept that having an imaginary friend or friends at a young age is normal for a child. But there can be concerns that the creation of an imaginary friend means that the child is lonely or has social problems.
Have no fear. Imaginary friends are part of normal development and can help a child:
- Cope with a life change or fear
- Practice social interaction
- Think more creatively
Separating Imagination & Reality
Children know that their imaginary friends are not real. In a study that interviewed 86 children, 77% said they had an imaginary friend. Then, 40 percent pointed out without being prompted that their friend wasn’t real, making statements like, “He’s not in real life.” Or, “I just made him up in my head.” Imaginary friends are developed when children have ample unstructured alone time.
How to Deal With an Imaginary Friend
You shouldn’t tell your child not to have imaginary friend. Doing so will make them keep their friend a secret and they may feel they’re doing something wrong. Instead, step back and only be involved with your child’s friend when you are invited to.
Sometimes children will use their imaginary friend as an excuse for poor behavior. If you find your child using their imaginary friend as an excuse, use the situation as a learning experience for your child. For example, if your child blames spilt juice on their friend, have your child take responsibility. Say something like, “We all make mistakes. Help Suzie clean up the juice.”
Coping With a Life Change or Fear
The world can be a scary place for young children. Having an imaginary friend helps them cope with and understand their environment. If your child’s imaginary friend is afraid of the dark, your child may share that fear. Imaginary friends who have a fear help a child deal with their own fear by comforting their friend. Imaginary friends can also help children ease into new situations like a new school by allowing them to have an outlet before they make new friends.
Practice Social Interaction
Children who have imaginary friends can take on both sides of the conversation. If your child’s imaginary friend is often acting out, your child may scold him and say things like, “You shouldn’t do that.” Or, “You need to share.” As a result, they can practice necessary social skills without the fear of being judged. Then, your child can apply those skills to real life interactions.
Think More Creatively
Children who have imaginary friends tend to be more creative. This creativity allows children to make up stories and find solutions to problems, which can benefit them in adulthood. And believe it or not, adults also have imaginary friends, though they are not called by that name.