If your child has an imaginary friend, they’re not alone. It’s common for toddlers and young children to have pretend friends that they share experiences with.
What Is an Imaginary Friend?
Imaginary friends can be other children, mythical creatures, animals, a toy that has come to life, or any other kind of imaginary companion. In most cases, you don’t need to worry about your child if they have a made-up friend. Creating a buddy is something fun for them to do, especially because these companions are always available to play with them.
As children reach their second and third year of life, their imaginations expand, and they’re able to play pretend. Many children know that these friends don’t actually exist, but they experience real feelings of comfort thanks to the friendship.
Studies show that around 65% of kids had imaginary friends at some point before they turned seven. Toddlers and young children are open and vocal about their made-up companions, but the same study showed that this isn't the only "imaginary friend age:" School-aged kids are just as likely to have imaginary friends.
How Long Do Imaginary Friends Last?
There’s no way to tell how long a made-up friend will last. Your child will stop playing with them when they’re ready. Many children keep imaginary friends around for several months, but they could play an important role in your child’s life for a few years.
Why Do Kids Have Imaginary Friends?
Some parents assume that if their child has an imaginary friend, they’re lonely, stressed, or having similar struggles. This isn’t always the case! You might wonder, "Why do kids have imaginary friends?" Children can develop invisible friends to practice their new social skills or to process the things they see and experience.
Your child might create an imaginary companion to:
- Listen to and support them
- Play with them
- Do things that they can’t do
- Be someone special that only belongs to them
- Be someone who doesn’t judge or find fault in them
What Are the Benefits of Imaginary Friends?
In addition to readily available companionship, there are many benefits of imaginary friends for children and parents. Some of these benefits include:
- Improved problem-solving skills
- Opportunity to explore ideas
- Improved management of emotions
- Opportunity to exercise new behaviors and roles
- A comfortable avenue for starting difficult conversations with your child
- A means of easing your child through tough transitions and routines
Children who have imaginary friends are less likely to be shy or struggle with loneliness. One of the benefits of imaginary friends is that kids also tend to be more creative and confident than kids who don’t have make-believe friends.
Another benefit of imaginary friends is the insight it gives you into your child’s mind. By watching your child interact with an invisible friend, you can learn more about what they think, what they feel, what they like, and what they don’t like.
When Do Imaginary Friends Become a Problem?
Most of the time, having pretend friends isn’t anything to worry about. If you notice other signs that your child isn’t developing like you think they should, try setting boundaries. Initially, you should support your child as they create a relationship with their invisible friend. They’ll feel respected and loved as you ask them questions about what their made-up companion is doing and play along with their stories.
When do imaginary friends become a problem? If you notice that your child is blaming their imaginary friend for things they do, such as wasting food or disrupting family interactions, you can try setting boundaries. For example, if your child wants your friend to join in at family dinner, it’s OK to serve them a plate. It’s not OK to throw that food away at the end of the meal because your child doesn’t want someone else to eat it.
Warning signs that an imaginary friend may be negatively affecting your child’s development could look like:
- Extreme anxiety when around other children
- Repeatedly telling their imaginary friend about traumatic experiences in detail
- Constant 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
- Having an imaginary friend beyond age 12
If your child is showing these or other concerning signs, get in touch with their doctor. Your child’s habits and behavior will change as they grow up, but there could be psychological issues or other underlying causes at play.