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Should I Worry If My Child Has an Imaginary Friend?

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Psychologist Dr. Bill Maier says that imaginary friends are a totally normal part of life for preschoolers. Parents shouldn’t be concerned about imaginary friends unless a child is so focused on the relationship with the “friend” that he or she seems to be losing touch with reality. And of course, you should never let your child to blame their imaginary friend for their own misbehavior. In time, the imaginary friend should disappear as a child matures and builds friendships with real-life peers.

Danny Huerta, vice president of our Parenting and Youth department here at Focus on the Family, gives an illustration:

If kids have been made fun of, a lot of times they’ll create a superhero that has powers that will help them feel protected – maybe a stuffed animal that can be ferocious like [the comic strip] Calvin and Hobbes. [Hobbes] is an example of an imaginary friend “coming to life” and the fun a child can have with that.

Our Focus on Your Child newsletter from July 2008 has some additional thoughts:

Imaginary friends are not limited to preschool age children. A study conducted by the University of Washington and the University of Oregon shows that approximately 65 percent of all children have an imaginary friend by age seven.

The study found that preschool girls were more likely to have imaginary companions, but by seven, boys were just as likely. It also showed that children often forget imaginary pals as they form friendships or become interested in new things.

“An imaginary friend in early childhood is not uncommon and is an indication of a resourceful and inquisitive mind,” says Kathryn McColsky, chairman of the North Greenville University Department of Elementary Education. Pretend friends also allow children to safely act out social situations and conflict resolution.

An only or first child may be more likely to invent an imaginary friend, and language skills may develop sooner for children who talk with an imaginary friend. Although children should not be discouraged to invent imaginary friends, make sure your child is playing with other children and not existing completely in a pretend world. Ask your child to tell you about her imaginary friend. Make sure she knows the difference between what is real and what is imaginary.

(Candy Arrington, © Focus on the Family)

Interacting with your child about their imaginary friend can lead to some great teachable moments and opportunities to address any specific situations that may have prompted them to invent their pretend companion. Dr. Maier says, “You don’t have to go so far as setting a place at the table for your child’s imaginary acquaintance, but playing along can be fun for both of you.”

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