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Imaginary friends

3-minute read

Many children have an imaginary friend, a made-up person or animal that seems real to them. This is nothing to worry about. It may even mean your child is more intelligent and creative than usual.

Why does my child have an imaginary friend?

Young children often have active imaginations. Sometimes, they will imagine they have a friend who is not really there. It could be someone they already know, a character from a story or movie, an animal, or a completely imaginary creature. They might be with your child all the time, they might come and go, or they might just come at certain times and in certain places.

Children can have imaginary friends from about the age of 2½ through to their school years. The 'friendship' usually lasts for a few months, but some children have imaginary friends for several years.

Having imaginary friends can be positive. It can help your child to express their feelings, give them someone to play with, and help them develop their social skills. Children with imaginary friends are often more empathetic, intelligent and creative.

Some studies show that as many as 2 in 3 children have an imaginary friend at some time in their lives.

Should I be concerned?

Imaginary friends can help your child because they don’t judge them, they are always available, they are special to your child, and they support your child.

Very occasionally, children develop an imaginary friend after they have been traumatised. If your child is upset by the imaginary friend or if the friend is mean or nasty, talk to your doctor.

What should I do?

Don’t make a fuss when your child mentions their imaginary friend. Don’t contradict them or question them too much about the friend. Don’t get too involved — it’s their imaginary friend, not yours.

It’s fine for you to talk to the imaginary friend, but the more you make them a part of the real world, the longer they are likely to stay.

Imaginary friends can help you to see if your child has a problem. For example, if the imaginary friend is afraid of something, your child is probably afraid of the same thing. If the friend is misbehaving, your child may feel there are too many rules.

Most children with imaginary friends develop normal social skills. But if your child is choosing to play with an imaginary friend rather than real children, you might need to intervene and find things they can enjoy in the real world as well.

The best thing to do is to support your child and wait for them to grow out of this common phase.

Handling issues with imaginary friends

Imaginary friends can cause some annoying behaviour. Here are some tips for how to handle common issues.

  • Your child blames the imaginary friend for doing something bad: Calmly tell your child that their friend could not have done this. Then have your child help to clean up the mess and gently remind them of the rules.
  • You are asked to keep doing things for imaginary friends: Your child might ask you to lay a place at the table for their imaginary friend, or to make a snack for them. That’s fine. Rather than do it yourself, ask your child to help. That will help develop their skills.
  • Your child keeps consulting the imaginary friend: Sometimes children won’t do anything without asking their imaginary friend first. Calmly say to your child, “I want to hear what you think, not what your friend thinks”.

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Last reviewed: April 2021

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