My child has an imaginary friend… should I be concerned?

Kid Reading to stuffed animal in a field

You’ve just discovered that your child has an imaginary friend. Should you be concerned? Is this normal? Does having an imaginary friend mean that your child is very shy or antisocial?  Does it mean that she will never have any friends? Is her imagination overactive? Rest assured, many children develop imaginary characters as a form of play and having one can be an asset. Let us explain!

Imaginary friends are fictional characters that children construct in their own imagination and with whom they develop a meaningful relationship. Research indicates that 28% of children between 5 and 12 years of age – including those who tend to be social — have an imaginary friend and that having an imaginary friend is as common for boys as it is girls. Imaginary friends can help your child understand empathy towards others. They may help your child to process his or her own thoughts and feelings. For parents, this can help you better understand how your child may be feeling and guide your conversations about his thoughts and feelings. Also, imaginary friends can facilitate your child’s curiosity to explore his or her surroundings and for them to engage in play, which ultimately contributes to healthy development.

So, if your child has an imaginary friend don’t worry – relax and enjoy it! Ask questions to find out more about the friend (you might learn something about your child’s wishes, fears, interests) and, if it’s not too much hassle, play along with the friend’s requests. In time, your child will probably lose interest in the imaginary friend, or he or she may continue the relationship.  For the most part, however, you will hear less about the imaginary friend.

But, you should pay attention if your child has no friends or no interest in forming friendships, if your child has violent or harmful behavior and blames his or her imaginary friend, or if your child is fearful and complains his or her imaginary friend will not leave him or her alone. If you have concerns, talk with your pediatrician or a school counselor.

References

Taylor, M., Carlson, S. M., Maring, B. L., Gerow, L., & Charley, C. M. (2004). The characteristics and correlates of fantasy in school-age children: Imaginary companions, impersonation, and social understanding. Developmental Psychology, 40(6), 1173-1187.

Stephens, K. (2007). Imaginary friends: A fun, helpful, and normal part of childhood. Retrieved from http://www.easternflorida.edu/community-resources/child-development-centers/parent-resource-library/documents/imaginary-friends.pdf

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