Should You Worry About Your Child's Imaginary Friend?

If your young child’s best friend is invisible, is that cause for concern? According to child psychologists, the answer is “no”—and most parents seem to agree.

In a survey presented at a January meeting of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Educational and Child Psychology, 88 percent of parents said they didn’t see any problem with their children having imaginary playmates. To the contrary, they believed that their children benefited in a number of ways from having a pretend friend to pal around with.

The Upside of Invisible Playmates

“Our results showed that imaginary friends provided an outlet for children’s imagination and story making, facilitating games, fun, and companionship,” said study author and educational psychologist Karen Majors in a statement about the survey.

According to Dr. Majors, many parents in the study also gave examples of how imaginary friends helped their children cope with life events, such as moving to a new house or going on vacation. Plus, younger children often used imaginary friends to test how far they could push the rules with their parents, as in “I didn’t eat the cookie; the flying unicorn did.”

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Make-Believe Friends Are Common

Invisible pals are more common than you might think. In another new study, developmental psychologist Marjorie Taylor at the University of Oregon studied more than 200 three- to six-year-olds. Twenty-eight percent of the girls and 10 percent of the boys had an invisible friend. When kids whose imaginary friends were stuffed animals, dolls, or other toys were added to the mix, over 30 percent of children had some type of imaginary playmate.

Some parents worry that this type of behavior may signal that a child is emotionally distressed or has trouble relating to real children. Happily, that doesn’t seem to be the case for most kids. According to Dr. Taylor, youngsters with imaginary friends actually tend to be less shy and more outgoing than other children. And while children sometimes use imaginary companions to deal with problems, they also invent pretend friends simply because it’s fun.

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Imaginary Friends Build Real Skills

Young kids with imaginary friends get to stretch their imaginations and practice new social and cognitive skills through make-believe play. As a result, researchers have found that they tend to be precocious at:

  • Telling richly detailed stories
  • Seeing things from another person’s perspective
  • Focusing their attention

There’s also good news for those of us who, as adults, still fondly remember an invisible pal from early childhood (hello, Mr. Groundhog). Research suggests that children with imaginary friends may be more likely to grow into creative, imaginative adults.

All in all, your child’s imaginary friend is someone you might want to welcome into your home.

When to Consult a Psychologist

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