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Make-believe friends grow out of healthy active imaginations. They give children a great way to express their feelings and a playmate to practise their social skills with. Two out of three children have a make-believe friend, so it’s likely your child will bring one home at some stage.

Preschooler looking in mirror

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Research shows that children as young as three can distinguish between fantasy and reality. It’s just that children think of their make-believe friends as real parts of their lives – even though nobody else can see them.

 

What are imaginary friends?

Imaginary friends come in all shapes and sizes. They can be based on someone your child already knows, a storybook character or even a soft toy with human-like features. Or they can come purely from your child’s imagination.

These friends can always be there, or they might come and go. They might exist only in certain spots like the cubby house or at the kitchen table. And they will appear and disappear for no apparent reason along the way.

When do they appear and how long do they last?
Children as young as two and a half can have an imaginary friend. Children will usually stop playing with make-believe friends – whether they have one, several or even a whole family of them – when they are ready to move on. Research suggests that imaginary friends are most likely to be around for several months, but could be a feature of your child’s life for up to three years.

Why do children have imaginary friends?

Your child’s imaginary friend could be someone who:

  • listens to and supports your child
  • plays with your child
  • can do things that your child can’t do
  • is special and belongs only to your child
  • doesn’t judge or find fault with your child.

Your child is in charge of what the imaginary friend says, what the friend does and who this special friend can ‘play’ with. This could be part of the friend’s appeal too.

Imaginary friends allow children to explore a make-believe world that they create all by themselves. In fact, some research suggests that children with make-believe friends may be more imaginative and more likely to enjoy fantasy play and magical stories.

The way children play with or talk about their friends can tell you a lot about how they are feeling. Make-believe friends give you insight into your child’s inner world, and likes, dislikes and tastes.

There is no evidence that children with imaginary friends lack social skills or have emotional problems. Children with imaginary friends are reported to be more social and less shy, and to show more empathy in their play with other children. In fact, one study found that adults who had imaginary friends as children were more tuned in to the needs of others than adults who did not.

Handling issues with imaginary friends

Here are some ideas for handling the situation if imaginary friends become a little annoying.

Doing things for imaginary friends
You might find that you are being asked to hold open doors, fix a snack, or make up a bed for your child’s imaginary friend. Rather than doing it yourself, encourage your child to hold the door open, set a place for the friend at dinner or make up the bed. This way you are accepting the imaginary friend but also taking the opportunity to develop your child’s skills.

Talking through imaginary friends
Some children insist on consulting with their friends all the time – ‘I have to ask Sammy first’. They might also ask you to speak through their friends. If this is becoming frustrating, try saying to your child, ‘I want to hear what you think – not what Sammy thinks’.

Blaming imaginary friends
Sometimes children will do or say something they shouldn’t and blame their imaginary friends. You can handle this by clearly telling your child that the imaginary friend could not have done this. Then follow up with an appropriate strategy, such as making your child clean up the mess.

For more information on helping your child develop good behaviour, see our behaviour toolkit.

When there might be other issues

For a very few children, imaginary friends can be a symptom of other issues. If you are worried about your child’s imaginary friend – for example, if your child has suffered a traumatic event and the imaginary friend is being malicious or nasty – consult your local doctor or a health professional.

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  • Last Updated 11-09-2009
  • Last Reviewed 06-08-2009
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