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Imaginary Friends: It's Okay to Believe

Imaginary friends have been portrayed in a negative light, often making parents feel that their child may be anti-social, shy or have low self-esteem. What would the other parents think if your little Cindy started talking about her new pretend friend? Would they think you are not spending enough time with your child or that she’s not developing properly?

Relax! The other parents will probably tell you that their child also has an imaginary friend—maybe two. The truth is that about two out of three children have played with or spoken to an imaginary friend by the time they are 7 years old.

How Imaginary Friends Help Your Child

Your child is expressing her creativity by coming up with an imaginary friend. Maybe it’s a dragon, a teddy bear, another person who makes her feel more comfortable in social situations or just a partner for play. Imaginary friends can be an outlet to help children speak their minds or express their feelings.

Pretend friends also help in your child’s development of right versus wrong. If you hear your child blame the broken picture frame on her new friend, she has demonstrated that she knows what she did was wrong, but is not ready to take responsibility for it.

Guidelines for Imaginary Friends

  • Do not let the imaginary friend be your child’s only friend. Be sure your child is social in school or daycare, or schedule play dates with other children your child’s age.
  • Acknowledge that the friend exists (figuratively speaking). Demonstrate that you understand by listening when your child describes her friend’s likes and dislikes, talents and other unique attributes.
  • Do not let your child blame all mishaps on the imaginary friend.

Because imaginary friends are a normal part of child development, parents are advised to not make a big deal out of them. That means not telling your child she shouldn’t have an imaginary friend or insisting that the friend is not real – this may lead to hurt feelings. Parents also shouldn’t go to the other extreme and set an extra place setting at the dinner table so the friend can join the family. If always welcome, the friends may just stick around a little longer and appear more often.

Basically, just go with the flow. Most children will outgrow their imaginary friends. In the meantime, parents should be open to the creativity their child is demonstrating.

If you have questions about your child’s development, contact your child’s physician.

Family and Parenting Behavioral Health