Do you have an extra being living in your house? An extra child, perhaps, who spills the milk when no one is looking? An alligator that insists on sleeping on a particular couch cushion? Does a fantastical creature provide entertainment to your child while offering protection and transportation to your entire family? If you can relate, congratulations: your child is normal.
Imaginary creatures walk among us
Up to sixty-five percent of children between the ages of two and five have at least one imaginary friend. While these invisible companions are more likely to appear during the preschool years, they don’t necessarily disappear once the child enters school. Approximately thirty-seven percent of kids continue a relationship with an imaginary buddy through the age of seven. They may even stick around a lot longer. Some teenagers and well-adjusted adults confess to having imaginary confidants. Most researchers maintain that these relationships are not problematic when the people claiming imaginary friends acknowledge their friends’ made-up status.
Imaginary friends with real-world benefits
In the past prominent physicians, including renowned pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, viewed a child’s relationship with an imaginary friend as cause for alarm. Previous beliefs held that children who needed imaginary companionship were lonely or shy. They felt that the presence of imaginary friends indicated some form of psychological trauma had occurred. To combat the perceived trauma or insecurities, physicians recommended encouraging more social interaction and discouraging imaginary friendships.
Recent research thoroughly debunks these beliefs. In fact, researchers have found a host of benefits in children who hold company with imaginary friends. These kids are well-adjusted and exhibit more resiliency than those without imaginary friends. They are often more imaginative, have richer vocabularies, are better able to entertain themselves, and demonstrate a nuanced understanding of the way others think and feel. Moreover, children with invisible pals tend to laugh and smile more when playing with peers, and interact better with others. The benefits don’t end in childhood either. Adults who report having imaginary friends as children demonstrate better problem-solving and social skills than those who did not.
Although two out of three children report having an imaginary friend at some point, research shows that certain traits make the presence of a friend more likely. Oldest children and only children are more likely to have an imaginary friend, as are children who don’t watch much television. In the absence of playmates and electronic stimulation, these children might have more opportunities to engage their creative sides. In some cases, close siblings may have joint-ownership of an imaginary friend.
A friend to guide you
Sometimes imaginary friends pop up at just the right moment. It’s not uncommon for children to create imaginary friends during times of transition or change. A new friend might appear during a family move or after the birth of a new sibling. Some imaginary friends manifest after death or divorce. It’s not a coincidence. Imaginary friends can help children process events, express strange new feelings, or cope with new experiences. The friend becomes an outlet for the child’s complex emotions that his or her limited experiences and vocabularies may make difficult to express otherwise.
Many imaginary friends are super beings that can do it all. A child who cannot tie his shoe or ride his bike may proclaim his imaginary friend an expert. Other imaginary friends often take the blame for naughtiness or misbehavior. This fiendish friend may be a manifestation of a child’s desire to find out what it would feel like to disobey the rules.
When a friend moves in
Imaginary friends often arrive suddenly, and their stays are unpredictable. Some imaginary friends show up for a day and never return again. Others move in for weeks, months, or years at a time. Parents may even find themselves hosting what feels like a revolving door of imaginary friends; one friend may leave unexpectedly only to be replaced the next day.
What’s important to remember is that the imaginary friend belongs to the child, not the family. Parents and caregivers should let the child take the lead rather than try to guide the friend’s storyline. Wait to be included in conversations or activities with the imaginary friend. Indulge the child as much as you feel comfortable. If the friend wants to “eat dinner” with the family, include an extra place setting. If, however, the child insists that Grandma sit in the backseat so the imaginary friend can sit in front, firmly tell him that his friend must sit in the backseat.
It’s also important to let your child know that they cannot blame mistakes on their imaginary friends. Hold the child accountable for whatever breach of rules or procedure occurred even if he or she insists that it’s the friend’s fault. If your child still maintains that the imaginary friend is responsible, insist on apologies from both your child and the friend. Be wary of ongoing misbehavior or destructive acts—this may be a sign of a deeper issue. If this happens consult a therapist or counselor.
Like every other stage of child development, your child’s fascination with his or her imaginary friend is limited to a few short years. Though they can be confusing, demanding, and sometimes a little naughty, imaginary friends are a magical part of childhood. Enjoy it while it lasts.