A parents' guide to imaginary friends

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

Your little one has introduced you to their new friend, who happens to be invisible. You might be confused, concerned or even a little amused by your child’s imaginary friend.

So, let’s have a look at understanding the meaning behind the friendship and see whether there is any cause for concern.

Firstly, why do children create imaginary friends?

There is no singular reason why a child decides to develop an imaginary friend, but researchers have identified 5 possible purposes they might serve (below).

Regardless of why a new imaginary friend takes up residence in your home, experts agree that they can stay, as they’re a normal part of childhood.

· Problem solving and emotional management

Children can use their imaginary friends when learning to work on problem-solving skills. You might hear your little one using keywords or phrases common to compromise.

Your child may also use their new friend to learn how to manage their emotions. In this case, the imaginary friend has likely been created so the child can practice their social skills.

Children may also use their imaginary friends to express fear or anxiety to adults. For instance, if your little one tells you their new friend is scared of the dark, it’s likely they’re scared of the dark themselves.

· Exploring ideas

Your child will learn to create goals at an early age, they will assign value and purposes to these goals.

They can sometimes explore this through imaginary play, for example, your child might think they want to work as a doctor someday. They might create relevant imaginary characters to help them explore this idea or role-play the role.

· Fantasy play

In some instances, children might need a specific companion for fantasy play.

Imaginary friends are perfect for this kind of play as they can transform into whatever a child needs them to be! The child can then control the fantasy fully without compromise.

· Loneliness

Combatting loneliness doesn’t always mean your little one is deprived of social interactions or needs someone to play or chat with.

Often creative children with plenty of friends will still call on an imaginary friend to play within at-home downtime.

· Exploring relationship roles

Learning the roles in relationships can be a little complex for young children, so they may bring in imaginary friends to help them understand these.

They for example may take on a caregiver role (for example for a pet) or a role of a teacher (for example to a friend) to learn about and explore how each role works.

So, there are plenty of purposes for imaginary friends, now let’s have a look at the benefits!

There are several benefits to keeping imaginary friends around both for children and parents, including:

- Increased conversational and vocabulary abilities (as chatting to an imaginary friend provides more opportunities to practice speaking),

- Promoting abstract thinking,

- Helping develop coping mechanisms,

- Encouraging confidence,

- Some studies suggest children who have imaginary friends in younger years grow up to be more creative as an adult,

- Giving parents additional insight into the child’s mind, these can also aid in big transitional periods by being an additional comforting figure.

Now that you know your child’s imaginary friend is a totally normal aspect of their development, the best way to support this is to play along!

You can invite their new friend along for a walk or leave a space for them on the couch. But be sure to follow your child’s lead and allow them control over the engagement.

Support and suggest but allow your child full independence over how the imaginary friend comes into play.

When playing along, it’s also important to take note of the type of friend and respond appropriately.

For example, if the friend is naughty or mischievous be sure to set boundaries so your little one knows what acceptable behaviour is and what is not.

There may also be some situations where imaginary friends don’t get an invite or where you have to limit how long your child can spend with them. This is totally ok to do and sets out realistic boundaries (it’s also good practice for setting limits with future real-life friends).

But imaginary friends, although in very limited circumstances, can signify a possible problem – let’s take a look at the signs:

- When the creation of an imaginary friend accompanies other concerning signs or symptoms of mental health issues,

- When a child can’t separate fantasy from reality (most children are aware their friend is make-believe),

- When a child refuses to socialise with other people, opting to only engage with their imaginary friend and

- When the imaginary friend encourages your child to harm themselves and others.

If you notice any of these signs, speak to your nursery manager or GP, they will be able to advise on how to address the situation.

Finally, you may be wondering when your children will say goodbye to their imaginary friend.

There is no rule for when their friend is due to depart but like all aspects of childhood, it’s something that they will eventually grow out of in time. It’s just important to support them whilst they’re around.