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Imaginary Friends: What's Normal and What Isn't?

As a child, I had an imaginary friend, and my mother did not know how to react.

What does it mean if your child has an imaginary friend?

What does it mean if your child has an imaginary friend?

I was playing in the living room. My mom overheard me talking to someone so she came over to check who it was. There was no one in the room except me. She became curious.

Mother: “Who are you talking to?”

Me: “I’m talking to Danny.”

Mother (amused): “And who is Danny?”

Me: “He’s my friend.”

Mother: “Is Danny hungry? Can I bring you and Danny some cookies?”

Me: “Danny doesn’t eat. Danny is dead.”

At this point, my mother was speechless and gaping at me with terrified eyes. This incident had gone from being cute and cuddly to being outright creepy. It took her a while to regain her wits, at which point she headed for the telephone and called her older sister. She was desperately looking for some advice that did not include tying garlic and wind chimes in every corner of the house to scare away evil spirits. My aunt’s advice was simple: Get her some friends.

The Role of Imaginary Friends in Childhood Development

Imaginary friends can play a very important role in the development of your child. By imagining people (as well as fantasy worlds) your child is better able to cope and handle the reality that now extends in from of him in a way that is more easily understood by his young mind.

Why Do Children Have Imaginary Friends?

Seven out of ten children under 7 years old will have an imaginary friend. Why? Because imaginary friends help a child understand the new reality they are faced with as they grow up. They help the child adjust to this crazy, chaotic world. In fact, imaginary friends can help the child in several ways:

  • Emotional Expression. They help children express their feelings, both negative and positive.
  • Dealing With Conflict and Fears. They allow children to project their conflicts, fears, and phobias onto the imaginary friend. For example, they may say: “Mom, Timmy [imaginary friend] does not want to poop in the toilet.” What they’re really saying is that they themselves are afraid to leave diapers behind.
  • Emotion Regulation. They can help a child to regulate their emotions. For example, let’s say "Timmy" is having a hard time sharing his toys. You may choose this opportunity to ask your child why Timmy is having such a hard time sharing. Your child will be more willing to share why Timmy is having hard time if he doesn’t feel like he is being accused directly. Instead, Timmy is the one at fault and the one who needs correction. He can help Timmy share and, in the process, teach himself a lesson.
  • Perspective and Empathy. Imaginary friends help children see other people’s viewpoints. Even if the friend is imaginary, your child is learning to see things from other people’s perspectives. If "Timmy" is scared of doing something, you can teach your child how to walk Timmy through a difficult situation so he will learn that there are more than just his way of doing things.
  • Social Confidence. Imaginary friends can instill a sense of confidence in a child. Once he has walked his imaginary friend through a difficult situation, and once "Timmy" has succeeded, your child will see that fears or other problems are not obstacles that cannot be overcome.
An imaginary friend can boost a child's confidence and help them learn to regulate their emotions.

An imaginary friend can boost a child's confidence and help them learn to regulate their emotions.

Which Children Are More Likely to Have Imaginary Friends?

Children are more likely to develop imaginary friends if they have no siblings or much older siblings, or if they spend too much time with adults. An imaginary friend could be a sign that your child may need some actual friends to play with.

Is it true that imaginary friends are a sign of intelligence?

It was once believed that imaginary friends are an indication of superior intelligence, but there is little evidence for this. In her book Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them, Marjorie Taylor says, “It is not true that all intelligent children create imaginary companions nor that only highly intelligent children create them." So if your child doesn't have an imaginary friend, there's no cause for concern: “the absence of an imaginary friend says nothing about the child’s intellectual abilities.”

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The Benefits of Having Imaginary Friends

Parents, there’s no reason to freak out if your child is talking to someone you can’t see. (I don’t mean internet chatting. That you should worry about!) In fact, imaginary friends can prove to be of great benefit for your child’s cognitive and social development. Here’s what studies have shown:

  • They can help children deal with boredom and loneliness.
  • Children with imaginary friends have better social skills and are adept at making (real) friends.
  • They tend to be less shy and timid than other kids.
  • They develop better communication skills.
  • They develop better reasoning and cognitive skills.
  • They become more creative and empathic adults. Studies show that children with imaginary friends grow to have creative minds as adults and will often gravitate towards the arts, poetry, music or any other type of artistic expression.
If your child is feeling alone he might be more prone to having imaginary friends.

If your child is feeling alone he might be more prone to having imaginary friends.

How Should Parents React to Imaginary Friends?

Just because your child is talking to someone you can’t hear or see doesn’t mean that you need to frantically run to the closest psychiatrist and fill your child with medication for schizophrenia or psychosis. Having an imaginary friend is quite common in children under 7 years old. However, it is important that parents don’t interfere or ridicule their child for his productive imagination.

Even if you think that it’s cute and funny that your child has an imaginary friend, don’t stimulate or repress his relationship with “Timmy.” Simply observe so you can know if this "friend" is a good or bad influence on your child. By listening closely to the conversations that he has with his imaginary friend, you will be able to get to know your child better and you will be able to interfere only if it becomes necessary.

Parents should also arrange for your child to do something more than just play with their imaginary friend. Allow him to play and talk with “Timmy,” but don’t let this relationship becomes the sole source of socializing. Take your child out to the park, play with him, or take him to a place where there are plenty of children around his age.

When Should You Worry?

Most children will outgrow their imaginary friends as soon as they start school or as soon as they find themselves around other children. However, even if your child’s imaginary buddy is still around while he is in school, there’s no real reason to worry, unless:

  • Your child is spending so much time in his fantasy world that he has no interest in interacting with his peers.
  • The imaginary friend is hindering his socialization with other children.
  • You start noticing that your child is acquiring aggressive behaviors because of this relationship.
  • His fantasy world becomes his reality.
  • The imaginary friend tells your child to do things that are dangerous to himself or others.

If you find any of these characteristics in your child, seek the help of a specialist.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Phoebe on June 23, 2020:

I have two imaginary friends and I'm ten. I have actual friends and I spend time with them, but I also like to spend time with my imaginary ones. I think it helps me since I'm an only child and there aren't a lot of kids in my family, so I do everything by myself! Thanks for the information it really helped me understand my imangenary friends and why I have them!

Nikita on May 02, 2020:

Well my daughters friend is green with green and purple dress and green shoes making my child disobey rules and telling my child she will bite me to death also telling my child for instance the names of boys private parts that we dont talk about infront or near her getting manners she never had and starting to get. Really hard to handle

Snossg on April 01, 2019:

My daughter, Ema, had an imaginary friend that she called Mr Director. She would become him and ring our doorbell bringing gifts for Ema. Gifts of rocks or wildflowers. I asked her as a teenager what happen to him and she said "oh, he died" She is a very successful and happy adult today

Kat on October 13, 2018:

I am 12 and my best friend is 10, we both have imaginary friends and we sorta joke around that they are able to do stuff in the material world, while we admit they're imaginary, they help us cope and we try to share our imaginary friends with each other by drawing them, is it okay that we still need them? Nobody but her knows about my friend. She doesn't stunt my sociability.

apryljackson2013 on August 28, 2018:

Hello,

My child has an imaginary friend, but he is entering a new school is it normal for him to talk to his friend at school. I am a bit concerned, any advice on what should I do.

Jaxie on June 13, 2018:

My mom wants to know if she should worry about her kid's imaginary friend. We're 60

Rose & Jackie on May 30, 2018:

Hi, i'm looking for some help with my OWN imaginary friends, any advice?

Silver Q (author) on August 05, 2015:

Hi, brake12,

thank you for your kind words!

Audrey Selig from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on August 04, 2015:

Hi - I also wrote a hub on imaginary friends. Your hub is extraordinary, as it delves into the subject quite thoroughly and gives lots of tips. I love to hear stories of the friends, some of which are very funny. Sometimes, I wish I had imaginary friends when I was younger. Sharing, Blessings, Audrey

Yoleen Lucas from Big Island of Hawaii on May 01, 2015:

Ever read the book, "A Little Princess" by Frances Hodgson Burnett? Sarah Crewe, the protagonist, had a very active fantasy world. It helped her through an extremely troubling time. Movies have been made based on the book; one starred Shirley Temple, another came out in 1995 starring Liesel Matthews.

I believe the author herself had an equally rich imagination, or she wouldn't have been able to write the book.

Tanya Thistleton from Victoria on April 30, 2015:

Great article - our son had Fred mosquito in the toilet who he used to talk to when on the toilet. Occasionally Fred would get the blame for things like toilet paper all over the floor. I never worried about it and was actually sad to hear that Fred has left our house :(.

James C Moore from Joliet, IL on April 30, 2015:

I had a bad experience with my two imaginary friends. They started hanging around each other and dumped me. Ooh!:) How common is this? I ask this because I don't know of any of my childhood friends who admitted to having imaginary friends.

Gracie L Sprouse from Virginia on April 30, 2015:

Exceptional information. My youngest son acquired an imaginary"monster", after the other four children had started school. I asked our doctor about it and he said don't worry.

The only thing that worried me was when I sat in a chair where his friendly monster was and broke his leg. The doctor said that it was okay that I put an imaginary splint on his friends leg and apologized for sitting on him.

He forgot all about him when he started school. That child is grown now and has proven to be very imaginative and creative.

Kelsey Elise Farrell from Orange County, CA on April 30, 2015:

This is great, I used to teach a little girl who wanted only to play with her imaginary dinosaur friends, her mom constantly asked if it was normal and I assured her that of course it is--she was 3!

Dbro from Texas, USA on April 30, 2015:

Interesting article, Silver Q! I must admit to having imaginary friends as a child, and I do remember them helping me work out problems I had navigating the early elementary social scene. I'm not sure my parents realized I had these "friends," but I'm sure it wouldn't have freaked them out. They were seasoned vets by the time I came along. I am pleased at the notion that children with imaginary friends have a higher level of intelligence and creativity. Very flattering. As an artist, I hope it's true!

Thanks again for a thought-provoking article.

RoadMonkey on April 30, 2015:

That must have given your mum quite a fright. Children didn't seem to have imaginary friends when I was young, at least I don't remember them having them.

DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on April 30, 2015:

Very interesting. There must be more imaginary friends these days. Families used to be bigger and children closer together in age. We used to be able to play in the street with little likelihood of cars coming along. Now children are indoors with few siblings.

bluebird on April 30, 2015:

Great story to start it off! And the pictures - excellent, very pleasing!

Congrats on a great Hub of the Day! Keep 'em coming.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on April 30, 2015:

Great hub, Silver Q. Congrats on HOTD! This is useful for parents who have children that have imaginary friends, which seemed to be a phrase at some point. Voted up!

stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on April 30, 2015:

Hi, a useful and interesting hub. I think most children go through this. I use to watch my grandson who was an only child and he use to have long conversations with his friend when he was in bed. He out grew this when he went to school. Its part of growing up.

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on April 30, 2015:

Very great and useful article. You have done it so perfectly presenting real picture of the situation and giving good tips to manage it. Almost all children have imaginary friends or toys with whom they speak and interact. So, your article is very useful for parents in tackling the situation.

Voted up, useful and awesome and sharing it on G+.

Carolyn from Northamptonshire on April 30, 2015:

Well done , my sons friend was a snowman, always made me smile when he asked him to sit by the fire to warm up!

Silver Q (author) on May 31, 2014:

Hi Maggie.L:

My mom said the same thing! :D Thank you for reading and commenting!!

Maggie.L from UK on May 30, 2014:

A really useful article with reassuring advice for mums. I wish I'd known some of this when my kids were little . Great hub.

Silver Q (author) on May 23, 2014:

Hi jennakottman:

I'm happy to hear that, even though this hub was completely irrelevant, you were still able to enjoy it. Thank you for reading and commenting! :)

Jenna Kottman from Chicago, Illinois on May 23, 2014:

Great article, very interesting...even though I do not have children and this is completely irrelevant to my life... happy to stumble upon this hub :)

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