Is It Okay For Your Child To Have Imaginary Friends?

When your kid's BFF is invisible, do you need to worry?


I had a lot of friends growing up. But I distinctly remember one of my good friends, Baby. She was pretty great, better than my favourite Mickey Mouse blanket that would protect me from the scary monster that lived under my bed. Now, that’s a pretty big deal when you’re four. We played together all the time, had snack time together, even had some of the best sleepovers. She was one of my best childhood friends, and Baby was my imaginary friend.

Baby was someone I could play with when nobody else was around, someone I could rely on. Being an only child, it was nice to have the company especially on rainy days. But like all good things,  our friendship quickly dissolved once we got our family pet dog. Because what’s better than an imaginary friend? A real one.

For a while I used to think of Baby as a product of an only child’s overactive imagination. But one look into the subject of imaginary friends and I realized I wasn’t the only one. Parents, breathe a sigh of relief. "Fantasy friends" are actually a lot more popular than you might realize. Researchers at Queen’s University in Canada say that 40-65 percent of all children have imaginary friends. It’s most common among only children (hey, that’s me!), oldest children and children who don’t watch a lot of entertainment. And although some parents worry about their child's pretend friends, here are some reasons why having imaginary friends should be embraced.

Creative minded. You’ll be relieved to know that having an imaginary friend is a sign of your child’s creativity. Some children go as far as creating a whole back story for their imaginary playmates. Some are from far away lands while others can be spin-offs of their favorite television character.

Kick those stereotypes to the curb. Many people believe that children with imaginary friends are either bored or withdrawn from the environment. In a majority of cases, that couldn’t be more further from the truth. Multiple studies show that children with imaginary friends are not only creative but are sometimes more outgoing and social than children without them.

Can help with your child’s development. A child’s imagination is a very powerful thing. It gives children the freedom to play as they please, exercise their storytelling skills and create interesting environments for themselves. Imaginary friends also help children cope with certain situations like moving into a new home or changing schools. Pretend friends can potentially make big transitions a lot easier for your child.

Fantasy vs. Reality. Worried that your child may think their imaginary friend is real? Don’t. Researchers say when children develop the skills to actually make up these “pretend friends,” that’s also the time they’re able to distinguish the difference between fantasy and reality. So even though they’ll pretend their playmates are as real as real gets, they know very well that they aren’t.

Can help identify child’s problems. Imaginary friends are great at helping parents identify problems or fears their child may have. For example, if your child is afraid of something, they may use their "friend" as a vessel to voice these concerns to you. For instance, your child might come up to you and say, “Mr. Wiggles can’t sleep very well. He’s afraid of the dark.” Your child is using their friend as a way to express how they feel to you. Use this to your advantage and use your child’s imaginary friend as a way to respond back to them. “Tell Mr. Wiggles that you are both welcome to sleep with mom and dad tonight.”

When To Worry

Your child’s bad alter ego. Sometimes one of the downsides to your child having an imaginary best friend is that they turn into their bad alter ego. They use their "friend" as a way to break the rules and say, “Mr. Wiggles did it!” Instead of pointing out the obvious, that Mr. Wiggles in fact doesn’t exist, attack the problem from a different angle. For example tell your child, “I don’t care who did this, but you have to help Mr. Wiggles clean up this mess.” Then reinforce the idea that if Mr. Wiggles wants to continue coming over, then everyone has to play by the house rules or there will be consequences.

Duration of  the "friendship". Most fantasy friends can last up to months or years. Most children will outgrow their imaginary friends by the time they reach kindergarten, while some won’t let go until they reach about seven years old. It’s also important to note that boys typically develop imaginary friends later than girls, so don’t be alarmed if they still have an imaginary playmate heading into primary school. Any longer than that and you may want to address the issue with your doctor.

Imaginary friends can be a symptom of something much worse. Rarely will having imaginary friends have negative consequences. But if you notice your child is very withdrawn, doesn’t like to socialize with other children, becomes afraid of their imaginary friend or engages in violent behaviour and blames it on their imaginary friend - it’s time to see the doctor. This can all be a part of a growing mental disorder that requires treatment. But again rest assured, this is very rare.

All in all, imaginary friends are just a fun part of growing up. It’s a chance for your child to get in touch with their imagination and a chance for them to create a stimulating environment to play in. Embrace this stage and admire your child’s incredible creativity!

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