What are imaginary friends?
Imaginary friends are pretend friends that children make up in their imaginations. They’re usually nothing to worry about.
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. Sometimes they come purely from your child’s imagination. They’re mostly human, but they can also be animals.
These friends might 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 might appear and disappear for no apparent reason.
When do imaginary friends appear and how long do they last?
Children as young as 2½ years can have an imaginary friend. Children might sometimes have more than one imaginary friend.
Children usually stop playing with make-believe friends when they’re ready to move on. Imaginary friends are most likely to be around for several months, but they could be a feature of your child’s life for a few 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 the special friend can ‘play’ with. This could also be part of the friend’s appeal.
Imaginary friends allow children to explore a make-believe world that they create all by themselves. In fact, children with make-believe friends might 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’re feeling. Make-believe friends give you insight into your child’s inner world, and your child’s likes, dislikes and tastes.
Children with imaginary friends can be more social and less shy than other children, and they might show more empathy in their play with other children.
When imaginary friends cause problems
Here are some ideas for times when your child’s imaginary friend has become hard to handle.
Doing things for imaginary friends
You might find that you’re being asked to hold open doors, fix snacks or make the 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 the bed. This way you’re 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 imaginary friends all the time – for example, ‘I have to ask Sammy first’. They might also ask you to speak to their friend, rather than directly to them. If this is getting 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 have 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 consequence, like making your child clean up the mess.
When to worry about imaginary friends
For a very small number of children, imaginary friends can be a symptom of other issues. If you’re worried about your child’s imaginary friend – for example, if your child has been through a traumatic event or the imaginary friend is being malicious or nasty – consult your GP or another health professional.