When I discussed imaginary friends a few years ago, one father shared his experience:

"We'll put him to bed and he'll be quiet. When we get back downstairs he'll start talking, normal stuff, about our dog, Thomas the train, other toys in his room...Then he'll bust out laughing and say ‘You're crazy.’ The other night, he was laughing and talking like some one was up there with him and he asked for a book. Then said, ‘drop it, good boy, thank you Jason.’ He laughed, then ‘You're crazy Jason.’ I've noticed he's been talking like this more and more.”

While this dad questioned if his son was too young to have an imaginary friend, other parents ask: Is it normal for children to have pretend pals? In some cases, parents fret over how their children appear obsessed with the friend, “taking” them wherever they go.

It’s natural to feel concerned about how your child’s adopted an imaginary companion, but is that enough to discourage it?

Imaginary Friends Are Beneficial

Children’s imaginations begin developing around two-and-a-half to three years of age, signaling the beginning of pretend play. In two-thirds of children, it’s typical for an imaginary friend to come into the picture. 

Despite some parents’ negativity toward imaginary friends, one study found that most parents understand the benefits of an active imagination: “The great majority of the parents (88 percent) answered that they did not think that there were disadvantages for their child in having an imaginary friend. Parents saw the main reasons for having invisible friends as supporting fantasy play and as a companion to play and have fun with,” reports Dr. Karen Majors, who presented her findings at the 2013 Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Educational and Child Psychology.

Children often engage imaginary friends to retreat from problems or avoid coping with a real issue. Majors, who collected 265 questionnaires from parents, added, “Our results showed that imaginary friends provided an outlet for children’s imagination and story making, facilitating games, fun and companionship. These versatile friends also enabled them to cope with new life events like moving house or going on holiday.”

Some parents wonder if their child can distinguish between fantasy and reality. Researchers Marjorie Taylor and Candice M. Mottweiler at the University of Oregon quell that concern: “Research suggests that children are actually quite adept in making the distinction between what is real and what is not. Although they often become emotionally caught up in their pretend play, this is not unlike the adult tendency to respond emotionally to movies, books, and other types of fantasy material.”

As I explained in a previous post, imaginary friends not only mark an active imagination, but also help exercise children’s creativity. One study in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology even found that kids who engage imaginary friends during private speech develop better-internalized thinking, which is linked to stronger skills in planning and solving problems and puzzles. “Social engagement with imaginary beings may fulfill a similar role to social engagement with real-life partners in the developmental progression of private speech,” the researchers reported.

When Should Parents Be Concerned?

In very rare cases—such as in the case of Jani, a young girl in southern California—imaginary friends can indicate a bigger issue. Jani, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at only six years of age (she’s one of the few children under 13 to be diagnosed since 1990). Jani alerted her parents that something was wrong when she couldn’t control her growing number of imaginary friends.

Typically, parents should allow a child to decide how much they can engage in his or her fantasy. Respect your child’s space and let her take the lead—here, she’s in charge, as long as her adventures with an imaginary friend don’t interfere directly with your rules or her safety.

How do you interact with your child’s imaginary friend? Please share your stories in the comment section. 

Related: Imaginary Friends — Any in Your House?

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The British Psychological Society. The Advantages of Imaginary Friends. 10 Jan. 2013. Web. http://www.bps.org.uk/news/advantages-imaginary-friends

Davis, Paige E., Meins, Elizabeth, Fernyhough, Charles. “Individual differences in children’s private speech: The role of imaginary companions.” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 116.3 (2013): 561-71. Science Direct. 24 Aug. 2013. Web. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022096513001331 

Elsworth, Catherine. "We Did Not Know That Our Schizophrenic Daughter January Schofield's Imaginary Friends Were Hallucinations." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 28 July 2013. Web. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/children_shealth/9828583/We-did-not-know-that-our-schizophrenic-daughter-January-Schofields-imaginary-friends-were-hallucinations.html

Taylor, M. & Mottweiler, C. M. “Imaginary companions: Pretending they are real but knowing they are not.” American Journal of Play, 1, 47-54 (2008). http://imaginarycompanions.uoregon.edu/PDFs/TaylorMottweiler_2008.pdf

Photo credit: <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/%3Ca%20href%3D"http://www.flickr.com/photos/michellehebert/6661945363/">http://www.flickr.com/photos/michellehebert/6661945363/">Michelle Hebert | Art & Fashion</a> via <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/%3Ca%20href%3D"http://photopin.com">http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/%3Ca%20href%3D"http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/">http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/">cc</a> 

Copyright 2014 Susan Newman

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