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Parent Guide: Imaginary Friends

Teddy bear

Has your little one 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.

In this blog, we’ll look at understanding the meaning behind the friendship and discuss whether there is any cause for concern.

Let’s jump straight in!

Why do children create imaginary friends?

There is no single reason why a child would decide to create an imaginary friend, but researchers have identified 5 possible uses these serve (which we discuss below).

Regardless of why, experts agree that imaginary friends can stay as they’re a totally normal part of childhood. In fact, up to 65% of children under 7 create imaginary friends!


Let’s take a look at the purpose of having an imaginary friend

  • Problem-solving and emotional management

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

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

They may also use this to express fears or anxieties to adults – e.g. 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 little one will create goals at an early age, they will assign value and purpose to these goals.

They can sometimes explore these through imaginary play, for example, your child may think they want to be a doctor someday. They may create relevant imaginary characters to help them explore this idea through roleplay.

  • Fantasy play

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

Imaginary friends are perfect for this sort of activity as they can transform into whatever a child needs them to be! They have full control without compromise.

  • Loneliness

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

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

  • Exploring relationship roles

Learning the roles in relationships can be complex for young children, imaginary friends can help with this.

They for instance may take on a caregiver role (e.g. for a pet) or the role of a teacher to explore how each of these work.

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

  • Increased conversational and vocab abilities (as imaginary friends provide more opportunity for speaking practice),

  • Promotes abstract thinking,

  • Helps develop coping mechanisms,

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

  • Gives parents additional insight into the child’s mind – particularly during transition periods.


Supporting your little one

The best way to support your little one during this phase is to play along!

Invite their new friend along for a walk or leave them a space on the couch.

When playing along, be sure to follow your child’s lead and allow them to control the engagement. Support and suggest but allow them full independence over how the imaginary friend comes into play.

It’s important to take note of the type of friend they have and respond accordingly. For example, if their friend is naughty or mischievous be sure to set boundaries so your little one understands what behaviours are acceptable.

There may also be times when imaginary friends don’t get an invite or when you need to limit how long your little one spends with them.

This is totally okay to do and sets out realistic boundaries – which can be good practice for setting limits in the future with real-life friends.

For the most part, imaginary friends are great but, in some instances, they can signify a potential problem – look out for the following signs:

  • When the creation of an imaginary friend accompanies other concerning signs or symptoms of mental health (click here for more info).

  • When a child can’t separate fantasy from reality (most children know their friend is make-believe).

  • When the imaginary friend encourages a child to harm themselves or others.

If you notice any of these signs, speak to your nursery manager or GP, they will be able to advise you on how to best 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!

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