Is it normal for kids to have imaginary friends?

Imaginary pals are healthy, and helpful, for kids

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Morgan Cruickshank has had the same two best friends since she was three years old. Over time, they’ve married, had babies and, understandably, aren’t around as much anymore. Morgan is now 10. Her BFFs, Ghosty and Sneaky, are a dog and a cat. They also happen to be invisible — to everyone but Morgan, that is.

It’s perfectly normal for preschoolers and school-aged children to have imaginary friends, says Marjorie Taylor, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and the author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. Some children have a new pretend pal every week, while others keep the same one — or ones — for years. “The imaginary companion becomes part of the family,” says Taylor. “You find yourself setting an extra place at the table regularly.”

What’s good about imaginary friends?

Pretend pals come in all shapes and sizes, and can have very different personalities and behaviour. They help to nurture children’s imagination and creativity. Kids talk to them, read to them and, most of all, play with them. “Unlike real kids, imaginary friends don’t sulk or get cranky, or threaten to take their toys and go home,” says Taylor. And they offer more than just fun and companionship. Make-believe mates help kids work through real-life issues and provide comfort in their rapidly growing — and sometimes scary — world. “It makes you feel braver walking by a scary dog if you have an invisible tiger by your side,” says Taylor. Imaginary friends can be a useful window into what your child is feeling. If Freddy the Flying Bear is afraid he’ll go down the drain when he takes a bath, there’s a good chance your toddler may be anxious about that too.
Is there any reason to worry?

While it’s more common for only children or first-borns to have imaginary companions, that doesn’t mean they’re lonely or trying to fill a void, says Taylor. In fact, research has shown that kids who have pretend playmates tend to be more sociable and creative than those without them. So should you worry if junior doesn’t have a Flying Freddy of his own? Absolutely not, says Taylor. “There are a lot of different kinds of play that reflect a child’s growing creativity and imagination. Having an imaginary friend is only one.”

Imaginary friends can pose a problem if used as scapegoats. Supporting your child’s imagination does not mean her imaginary friend is exempt from the rules of the house, says Taylor. Don’t let your child shift responsibility for something she knows she shouldn’t do — whether it’s dumping all the toys on the floor or eating the last cookie.

As for your participation, let your child take the lead. If she wants to keep her relationship private, try not to interfere. If she invites you to join in, go ahead and have fun!
Kids typically outgrow their pretend playmates as they get older and busier. Still, Taylor has found that as many seven-year-olds have imaginary friends as four-year-olds do. Ghosty and Sneaky still drop in to visit Morgan every now and then with their 10 babies (five puppies and five kittens) in tow.