Your toddler has a new best friend, Mikey. Mikey is always available to play, shares your child's every interest, never demands special food or toys, and never has to be picked up or taken home. Sounds too good to be true? It is. Mikey is a figment of your child's imagination.
Many young children (about 65 percent) develop imaginary friends between the ages of 3 and 5, at a time when they are beginning to form their own identities and test the boundaries between fantasy and reality. Although it was generally believed that children outgrow imaginary friends by the time they enter school, research shows that nearly one-third continue to play with imaginary friends through age 7.¹ A study that followed children for three years found some differences over time. At a younger age imaginary friends were more likely to be based on a physical object, such as a stuffed animal, more girls than boys were likely to have imaginary friends, and parents were more likely to know about the imaginary friend. However, few differences were found in social or emotional understanding and in personality between children who had imaginary friends and those who did not. However, according to the study, those with imaginary friends tended to be better at seeing things from other people's perspective.
Still, some parents view the emergence of an imaginary friend with alarm. Is my child compensating for a lack of stimulation? Is my child socially maladjusted? Should I discourage the imaginary friend or play along? In general, your best response is simply to relax. An imaginary friend is usually nothing more than the product of a curious and creative mind figuring out how to make sense of the widening world. In fact, children who have active imaginations tend to develop into curious and creative adults.
Imaginary friends serve several useful purposes. They enable children to try out different relationships at a critical point in their social development. They allow children to explore issues of control, discipline, and power without the anxiety attached to interactions with real authority figures. For example, if you hear your young daughter scolding an imaginary friend, don't automatically assume that you've been too harsh with her. The scenario may be your child's imaginative way of trying to understand concepts of authority, right and wrong, and punishment. An imaginary friend can help your child cope with difficult emotions. For example, a child who spills a glass of milk may blame the imaginary friend as a way of dealing with his or her guilt—a perfectly normal strategy.
Anxieties associated with major changes in a child's life, such as a new baby or a divorce, may also be reflected in the child's relationship with the imaginary playmate. Parents can monitor any changes in the relationship with the imaginary friend to gain valuable insights into how the child is coping and then take action, if appropriate. For example, you might notice that your 4-year-old is suddenly much more attached to his imaginary playmate in the weeks preceding a move. Although he hasn't directly expressed any fear about the move, his intensified relationship with his imaginary friend could be a cue that he needs reassurance that while his home might change, the people most important to him will continue to be part of his life.
When should you become concerned? Take your cue from the intensity and duration of the child's involvement with the imaginary friend. A child who avoids meaningful interaction with other kids, preferring to play exclusively with an invented friend, may be experiencing psychological distress. Imaginary friends eventually disappear, but if a child continues to focus only on an invented companion you might consider consulting a professional to determine if the child has any underlying concerns or anxieties. In general, however, an imaginary friend is a sign that your child is dealing with the complex issues that confront all young children as they interact with the world around them. Don't discourage or belittle the relationship, but don't become too involved either. Go along with the scenario, but within limits; you can gently but firmly let your child know that Mikey is only make-believe.
Above all, try to enjoy this very natural and often enchanting facet of your child's growth; he or she is meeting the sometimes daunting challenges of development in an inventive and imaginative fashion.
l. Taylor, M. (2004). Developmental Psychology (Vol. 40, No. 6)