Let’s get one thing out of the way to help put your mind at ease: imaginary friends are common for young children and having one (or more) is usually normal and nothing to worry about.
“An imaginary friend can offer a lot to a young child and may be appealing for many reasons,” says Lisa Richards, MSN, CNM certified nurse midwife and the health coach coordinator at Ovia. “For example, an imaginary friend may be a way to express emotions, a play companion that gives a child a sense of control, an opportunity to practice social skills, a safe and non-judgmental outlet for thoughts and feelings and more. Often, an imaginary friend is just a sign of a healthy and active imagination. Some evidence suggests that having make-believe friends can actually improve some social-emotional skills and strengthen the ability to relate to peers.”
Imaginary friends are most common in children from ages 3 to 5, but they may sometimes show up for children as young as two-and-a-half. “In general, most imaginary friends last a few months to a few years, and most children will grow out of the imaginary friend stage on their own when they’re ready,” says Richards.
Since most children grow out of their imaginary friend stage on their own Richards says that it’s not usually necessary to try to force the issue. “Most children already know that they’re imaginary friends are not real, so it’s not usually necessary to convince them that their ‘friend’ is just pretend.”
If imaginary friends are creating complications in day-to-day life, there are ways to help address some of those issues without trying to ‘take away’ the imaginary friend.
For example, Richards says, that children often blame imaginary friends for things that they have done, so it can help to explain that the imaginary friend couldn’t have done it. “If a child says his imaginary friend spilled a cup of milk, stick to the idea that the imaginary friend can’t do that, and have the child help (in an age-appropriate way) with cleaning up the mess.”
Another example might be a child who constantly seeks the permission or opinions of her imaginary friend. “In that case, it can help to emphasize that you want to hear what your child thinks, not what the friend thinks. If you are worried about imaginary friends that are routinely troubling — for example if the imaginary friend is consistently mean or hurtful — then it would certainly make sense to talk to your child’s healthcare provider about what’s going on.”
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