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Is it normal for a child to have an imaginary friend?

Published: July 17, 2016 | By | 2 Replies Continue Reading

 

Worried about your child’s imaginary friend?

Psychologist and author Susan Newman, PhD offers advice and reassurance to worried parents.

Childhood friendships often worry parents, especially imaginary ones. Parents may question why their child has conjured up a playmate, and wonder whether these friendships will have an adverse affect on their child’s social development.

When I read Dr. Susan Newman’s writings on this topic, I asked my friend and colleague if she would be willing to answer some common questions for readers of The Friendship Blog. Her responses offer parents a healthy dose of wisdom coupled with reassurance:


Does having an imaginary friend necessarily signal a problem that needs attention from a parent?

Dr. Newman: Quite the opposite: Imaginary friends assist in a child’s coping with a life change (the arrival of a baby brother or sister, a move to a new home or school) or acquiring a new skill. For others, their pretend friends or creatures are simply fun.

Are only children more prone to having one?

Dr. Newman: Whatever purpose they serve and whatever form they take, fantasy friends indicate a fertile imagination that is as likely to belong to a child with as to one without siblings.

Parents of only children seem to be particularly concerned primarily because the myth that singletons have more fantasy friends than their peers with siblings and spend more time with them has been part of only child stigmas for over a century. Both points are unsubstantiated.

Marjorie Taylor, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them found that 65 percent of all children have make-believe friends at some point in their young lives. Taylor explodes the stereotypical view:

“It is not solely children who are firstborns or who have no siblings who create imaginary companions, and the appearance of an imaginary companion in the lives of these children is not necessarily a sign of loneliness or psychological distress.”

At what ages do kids typically have “imaginary friends”?

Dr. Newman: Children’s imaginations begin developing around two-and-a-half to three years of age, signaling the beginning of pretend play. Typically, an imaginary friend (or group of them) comes into the picture during the preschool years through roughly age six or seven.

How should a parent respond to a child preoccupation with an imaginary friend? Encourage or discourage?

Dr. Newman: When your adorable five-year-old asks you to tuck in Gloria or help Sam build his sandcastle, as a parent, you may be caught off guard or a bit stunned. You have no idea who Gloria or Sam is.

Turns out Gloria or Sam or Puppy or Penny is your child’s imaginary friend. Most parents wonder what to say or do…

Be accepting and welcoming. In other words, play along to the extent that being involved is doable. Participating presents an opportunity to understand what your child might be thinking or feeling—what she may be worried or happy about or trying to figure out or master.

That said, parents should allow the child to decide how much mom or dad engages in his or her fantasy. Respect your child’s space and let her take the lead—here, she’s in charge, as long as her adventures with an imaginary friend don’t interfere directly with your rules or her safety.

Does it help or hinder relationships with real friends?

Dr. Newman: In the 1940s and into the 1970s, famed Dr. Spock advised that children who invented companions needed more time with other children or help in getting along with them. Over the years, extensive research has proven otherwise.

For example, Jerome and Dorothy Singer who wrote The House of Make-Believe: Children’s Play and the Developing Imagination discovered that children with imaginary friends get along better with classmates. In fact, children with pretend friends are often less shy and interact with their “real” friends more.

What are the signs that it may be something more worrisome?

Dr. Newman: Generally, imaginary friends are not something parents need to fret about. In fact, children with make-believe friends tend to be more imaginative, have richer vocabularies, and are better able to entertain themselves.

Your child may ask to you set a place at the table for Puppy or Penny, but he or she knows that the pretend pal isn’t real. Although children can describe imagined pals in vivid detail including how they are acting, it is the rare child who believes a fantasy friend is real—even when that child is emotionally involved in pretend play.

Frequently a child’s imaginary friend becomes part of family lore. The family recalls and laughs about incidents and events long after the imaginary friend(s) has disappeared and that child is an adult.


About Susan Newman, PhD

Susan Newman, PhD is a social psychologist who specializes in parenting issues and concerns. She blogs for Psychology Today Magazine and is the author Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day.

Susan previously was interviewed on this blog on the topic of Saying No To Friends, one of the most popular posts with readers.

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Category: Child and adolescent friendships, OTHER ADVICE

Comments (2)

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  1. Tanja says:

    How old is the child? That depends a lot on whether it is normal or not…..

  2. Sandra Anne says:

    Great post! I’m an only child and had an imaginary friend for more than a year, when I was a toddler. My imaginary friend even had a seat at the table and other special privileges — and other guests were not allowed to sit in his chair. As my mother told it, this went on for quite a long time, and my grandparents were a little worried. My folks thought it was entertaining, and they didn’t worry too much.

    I made a lot of friends in the neighborhood in my grade school years, and outgrew the imaginary pal. I’ve always been a creative person — and I’m glad my folks allowed me to be me.

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