Many parents panic when their child introduces their new friend — who nobody else can see! Is their child being delusional? Fortunately, if you start a search online, you can explore the many perspectives on the phenomenon of imaginary friends.
Whether your child has a new imaginary friend or one that has been around for years, you can find out when it’s harmless or a potential problem. Read on to learn more about this fascinating childhood habit.
How to Tell If Your Child Has an Imaginary Friend
It’s often difficult for parents to figure out when their child is talking about a friend that’s real, or one that’s imaginary. Especially if they’re very young.
Sometimes, an imaginary friend takes the form of a beloved stuffed animal or doll that the child plays with on a regular basis. Other times, the imaginary friend is an invisible person that only the child can see.
However your child’s imaginary friend manifests, rest assured that this is an extremely normal part of childhood development. A study from the Universities of Washington and Oregon found that 65 percent of seven-year-olds surveyed had played with an imaginary friend at some point in their lives. Researchers found that it was most often the oldest child in a sibling group or only children who invented imaginary friends.
Children as young as two and a half have made up imaginary friends. Researchers have found that these friends stick around for anywhere from a few weeks or months to up to three years. Typically, imaginary friends trickle away as children enter school and are exposed to a large number of their peers. By ages six or seven, most imaginary friends are replaced with real-life friends.
What Are the Benefits of Having an Imaginary Friend?
While some parents might be afraid that their child’s imaginary friend means that they’re not socializing normally or are bored or lonely, this is far from the case. There are plenty of benefits to having an imaginary friend in the family.
Children Can Practice Social Skills in a Controlled Environment
One of the reasons why you should be encouraging your child’s play with imaginary friends is because it helps them practice their social skills in a controlled environment. Research on this phenomenon found that imaginary friends were common among only children or the eldest child in a family because they likely aren’t exposed to as many other children as their younger siblings will be.
With an imaginary friend, your child can practice social skills like sharing, verbal and non-verbal communication, planning, and emotional self-regulation. This way, when they reach school age or are around more of their peers, they’ll be much more adept in these key areas.
It Can Help Children Cope in Difficult or Transitional Situations
Some parents have found that imaginary friends are a key component of their child’s understanding and acceptance of new or difficult situations. Having a companion can really help your child feel supported and can help them learn how to self-soothe.
An imaginary friend can help your child feel in control. After all, the friend shows up when they need them and they have the power to send them away whenever they like. This sense of control can be vital for helping children feel more comfortable with a new situation.
They Can Help Your Child Learn New Skills
Imaginary friends are a great opportunity for parents to help teach children new skills. When the occasion arises, treat your child’s imaginary friend just like you would a real-life child.
As such, ask your child to help you make them welcome. If your child’s imaginary friend shows up at mealtimes, ask your child to help cut up their food, fill up their water cup, or even just pull out their chair.
Just be careful not to take over the playtime. Your child’s imaginary friend is a unique expression of their creativity and should remain under their control.
It’s an Opportunity to Teach Your Child Discipline
Often, children use their imaginary friends as a scapegoat for their bad behavior. Therefore, blaming them for anything from making loud noises to spills and messes.
While it might be tempting to think of this in a negative way, it’s actually a good thing. Their shifting of the blame means that they know what they’ve done is wrong. If this happens, reinforce the message by reminding your child of why their behavior was wrong. Follow that by laying out disciplinary action that applies to both them and their imaginary friend.
When You Should Be Concerned
Some parents are concerned when their child announces that they have an imaginary friend.
While there are plenty of benefits and positive aspects of this type of play, there are some situations where it could signal a need for concern. Here are some situations where an imaginary friend could be a cause for concern.
If It’s Preventing Your Child from Socializing Normally
Many children with imaginary friends find that they need their company less as they begin school and are exposed to more of their peer group. However, you should be concerned if your child refuses to socialize with their real-life peers. Instead, maintaining their relationship with their imaginary friend into first grade and beyond.
At that point, you should discuss with your child’s teacher or physician whether there may be something preventing your child from socializing normally.
If Your Child’s Imaginary Friend Is Mean or Rude
Sometimes, children use their imaginary friend as a scapegoat. Most of the time, it means that their moral compass is functioning correctly. They’re just scared of the consequences of them testing limits or behaving badly.
What should alarm you is if your child’s imaginary friend is mean or nasty. Especially if your child reports that their imaginary friends are being mean to them. This could be a sign of low self-esteem. On the other hand, your child could be reiterating unpleasant comments they’ve heard from other children.
If Your Child Has Recently Suffered a Traumatic Event
Another cause for concern is if your child invents an imaginary friend after a traumatic event. This is a sign that they’re struggling to process their feelings and emotions.
In this situation, they may require additional support. Reassure your child that they’re safe, talk with them about what happened, and answer any questions they may have.
If they invent an imaginary friend during this time, let your child know that their friend is welcome anytime. If you feel that they’re too old to have an imaginary friend, know that regression is a common coping mechanism for children who have recently been through a traumatic experience. These habits will often go away as soon as the child begins to feel safe and secure again.