If your child mentions an imaginary friend, add another seat at the dinner table and regard this wonderful aspect of your child’s developing mind and emotions with respect.

Once thought to be a sign of concern, today child development specialists agree that imaginary friends and fantasy lands are the tools of precocious children who use language and fantasy to explore safe avenues of learning about themselves and their real environment.

For many children who have an inclination toward fantastic thinking, imaginary friends begin as a personified daydream and can evolve into a world with multiple people in a self-tailored land. As long as these people and places don’t interfere with your child’s functioning in the real world (which they rarely do), your role is to acknowledge this new friend and create an environment in which your child’s relationship with this perfectly suited friend can flourish.

Who are these friends?

Between the ages of three and seven, researchers report that two-thirds of children have played with imaginary companions and that a third of those children still have an imaginary friend at the age of seven. You can see a predisposition for a pretend friend in infants. That is, some babies show a greater ability and preference for the type of fantasy play, such as puppets and nursery rhymes, which leads to having an imaginary friend.

While playing with an imaginary friend is a type of pretend play, creating and sustaining a distinctly other make-believe person (or world) is a more elaborate type of fantasy exploration. To create an imaginary companion, your child needs to take daydreaming to a new level; she creates a personified daydream that serves her multiple purposes, including companionship and reassurance. While imaginary companions have no physical form, they may have a basis in a familiar story and can take the form of an animal, doll, or a person.

Historically speaking, imaginary friends have moved from taboo to being shown on children’s television. Over a century ago when a child spoke of an imaginary friend, she was viewed as being haunted by a demon or, in a more positive light, as having a guardian angel. Regardless, throughout most of American history, imaginary friends were seen as outside of the ordinary.

In the 1920s, Jean Piaget, a prominent developmental psychologist, helped to recast imaginary friends as a useful part of transitioning from one developmental stage to another. Even with this break through in thought, the traditional view of imaginary friends remained that they were a sign of emotional immaturity and that children should have outgrown out their imaginary friends by the time they entered school.

Today, imaginary friends are regarded as allies and assets to developing minds. Several recent published stories have helped to normalize imaginary friends. Famous imaginary friends include Sesame Street’s Snuffleupagus, who started as Big Bird’s fantasy friend, and Hobbes, who is the cartoon character Calvin’s faithful tiger companion. In the recent film version of the classic story Where the Wild Things Are, Max, the main character goes to his fantasy world and romps with its inhabitants when he is coping with being sent to his room without supper. These mainstream depictions of imaginary friends and worlds have helped parents and children acknowledge and accept imaginary friends as a normal and helpful part of growing up.
What are some of the common features in imaginary companion play?

While by definition imaginary friends are unique, child development specialists have noted some commonalities in the children who have imaginary friends. Here are a few widely accepted characteristics of play with imaginary friends:

As mentioned above, most, but not all, children have an imaginary friend for some period of time between the ages of three and seven. However, keep in mind that some children with imaginary friends choose to never tell an adult about their companion.

Certain children are more likely to develop an imaginary friend:

  • Girls
  • Only children
  • Oldest children
  • Researchers report that interactions with imaginary companions typically occur when a child is alone and/or outdoors.

Early indicators of a child who might develop a fantasy friend include:

  • Showing a tendency toward fantasy play early
  • Distinguishing between fantasy uses of objects—a stick can be a snake, a bridge, and/or a cane—by the age of three
  • Possessing strong verbal skills early

What are the benefits of imaginary companions?

Cognitive—One of the biggest benefits of imaginary friends during childhood was reported in a recent article in Child Development, a scholarly psychological journal. The report shows that children with imaginary companions posses an increased ability to tell a good story and demonstrate an ability to enter into and develop a unique narrative; this important skill set translates into ability to read well (Trionfi and Reese 2009). Therefore, imaginary friends serve as a pre-literacy tool for children because it allows them child to understand stories intuitively before being expected to understand them in print. A child with an imaginary friend has already created a fictional character; as a result, when she encounters one while reading, the transition is seamless.

Social—Imaginary friends offer more than cognitive benefits. For an only child or an oldest child, an imaginary friend offers companionship and entertainment. One woman who grew up as an only child of older parents on an isolated farm describes a group of imaginary friends who played with her on her porch. Interestingly, all of her imaginary friends were adults because she had so little experience with other children. In addition, when they were not playing with her, they lived in the space between the front door and the screen door—between the reality world of home and her fantasy land on the porch. For an isolated child with high verbal abilities, imaginary friends become a needed outlet for innate aspects of social development.

Emotional—Furthermore, like more general types of pretend play, imaginary friends can offer children emotional strength to encounter the innumerable new things and situations that they encounter daily. Pretend play is the fanciful place in which young children can test hypothesis. Much like a scientist, young children who engage in pretend play test ideas that they are forming. Involving a pretend friend in exploratory learning allows a child to imagine the possibilities of his current thought on others. In short, an imaginary companion can boost a child’s willingness to explore the unknown.

What is a parent’s role with imaginary friends?

Allow them to flourish—Even if you want to, you cannot create an imaginary friend for your child…but you can allow imaginary friendships to flourish. One way to create a home friendly toward imaginary friends is to become aware of your own attitude toward fantasy. Many adults are focused on thinking about the “how” or “why” of the world around them; however, imaginary companions require an adult to think in the realm of “what could be” and “what if.” Since children report having an imaginary friend but not telling their parents about it, be careful what comments your child hears you say about the fanciful thinking.

Show interest without interfering—Interacting with your child and her imaginary friend(s) in the fantasy plane requires you to use open-ended questions that help unlock the potential of the imaginary relationship and its surrounding story. While it may be tempting to ask a lot of questions about what the imaginary friend looks like, keep your comments and questions more general because forcing description can erode the unique identity of imaginary friend in your child’s mind. In short, set a place at the dinner table for the imaginary companion but resist asking for a lot of description of what the friend looks like or is doing.

Reserve judgment—Overhearing conversations and interactions between your child and her imaginary friend can provide insights into what your child is thinking. However, be aware that children often try on negative or even aggressive thoughts in play situations as a means of coping and exploring them—so do not be alarmed by what you hear or reprimand your child for expressing these thoughts in play.

Know the healthy limits—In a 2004 article, Stephanie Carlson, a child developmental psychologist, provides parameters of concern while parenting a child with an imaginary friend. She cautions that if your child has an exclusive relationship with an imaginary friend and does not have friends in reality or if your child reveals to you that his friend tells him to do things that he does not want to do, you should discuss this with your pediatrician or a child therapist.

Welcoming the friend who is not there will allow your child to reap the many benefits of working with her imagination. If you recall having an imaginary friend, I encourage you to talk about your imaginary friend openly with your child—talking about your friend in your home today acknowledges it as an important and normal part of your childhood.

By Anne Oxenreider