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Why it's okay for your child to have an imaginary friend

Little boy pointing at nothing
Children have imaginary friends at all ages and it doesn't mean that there is something wrong. In fact it can have some very positive benefits. Here’s how you can support your child's imagination.

Does your child insist that you set a place at the dinner table for a friend that doesn’t exist? Do you find your child insisting on the rights of an imaginary friend to the point of throwing a tantrum?

It’s perfectly reasonable to be a little alarmed when you see your child chatting away to his best friend only to realise that the friend doesn’t actually exist, but don’t worry, imaginary friends are a great way for kids to boost their confidence, solve problems – and shift the blame when they’ve done something wrong!

Why do children have imaginary friends?

“Children who create imaginary friends were once assumed to be lonely or socially incompetent,” says psychologist Rita Carter. “Their invisible playmates were regarded by adults as sad substitutes for proper social interaction.”

But research carried out by the University of Oregon has found that imaginary companions (or ICs) are really common. “Parents often worry about their kids' having imaginary friends,” says child psychologist Marjorie Taylor, who is based at the University of Oregon. “But most of the time it's just an elaborate form of play that children use to have fun and solve simple problems, such as fear of the dark. They can also use imaginary companions to share a secret, communicate worries or concerns to their parents or place blame. The phenomenon of the imaginary friend is really misunderstood. People thought it was rare, it's not. People thought it was a red flag, it's not. It makes you feel brave to walk by that scary dog next door if you have an invisible tiger by your side.”

How can imaginary friends help a child?

Parents are often confused about what to do when they discover that their child had an imaginary friend. Margaret, a grandmother, describes how she came to realise that one of her granddaughter’s close friends wasn’t real.

“She spent a long time talking about her friend Kelly and one day I suggested she invite Kelly to her birthday party,” Margaret remembers. “It was only when she said Kelly lived here that I realised this little girl, who played such a big part in her life, was only in her imagination.”

“She used Kelly to test out what she could, or could not, say or do. She was used to ask about things she would have hesitated about talking about herself.'

A growing body of research indicates that pretend friends can help children practice conflict resolution and other life skills. And researchers have found that children who engage in imaginative play show a richer, more varied vocabulary, an increased ability to show empathy for others, and an increased ability to entertain themselves.

How to understand your child's imaginary friend

  • Don't be afraid to accept the imaginary friend if your child wants you to, for example, if they invite you to play with them. Be sure not to take it further than your child allows.
  • If your child's imaginary friend hasn't disappeared by the age of eight or nine, don't worry. School-age children do have imaginary friends but tend to keep them very private from adults.
  • Try not to worry if your child's imaginary friend becomes threatening or sinister. Remember it’s an external projection of your child's fears. This is much healthier than if your child was displaying these traits themself.
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