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Why Do Kids Have Imaginary Friends?

Why Do Kids Have Imaginary Friends?
November 23, 2016

Many children have imaginary friends. Imaginary friend can be invisible to others, or take the form of an inanimate object. When the imaginary friend is a real object, the child imagines the inanimate object as having personality and abilities.

Just how many children have pretend companions varies according to the sources you read and sometimes according to the type of imaginary friend. An Australian study says some 65 percent of all children have imaginary friends. Author Lauren Young says that as many as two-thirds of children, typically between the ages of 3 and 8, have imaginary friends. Young’s article, however, further cites researcher Marjorie Taylor, who says that only some 37 percent of all children have invisible imaginary friends, or imaginary friends that aren’t objects. Whatever source you look at, it’s a significant enough percentage, even at the lower end of the scale.

The conclusion: imaginary friends are common as mud.

When parents go looking for statistics, however, what they are often looking for is assurance that a particular phenomenon is normal. One parent whose child has an imaginary friend, for instance, may be concerned that the imaginary friend is a symptom of mental illness. Another parent may be concerned that the child has no real friends and must invent imaginary friends, instead. If a parent knows that many or even most children have imaginary friends, that parent is going to be pretty sure that it’s perfectly fine and healthy to have an imaginary friend (it is).

Imaginary Friends With Benefits

Here, while we can’t say exactly how many children have imaginary friends, we can say that imaginary friends are common enough to be benign, harmless. Having an imaginary friend may, in fact, have many benefits. An imaginary friend may offer a child a way to try out and practice new skills without getting laughed at. Children may, for instance, use imaginary friends to practice language or social skills. Imaginary friends can also help children talk through situations, think of solutions to problems, or vent emotions.

Children who have imaginary friends are not typically loners. They don’t have issues with making or keeping friends. Parents should see imaginary friends not as a replacement for real friends, but as a sign of a child’s resourcefulness. A child with an imaginary friend is a child who has found a way to cope with feelings and problems.

Children have two different ways of relating to imaginary friends. Children may have hierarchical relationships or egalitarian relationships with their imaginary friends. In a hierarchical relationship, one friend in the relationship is dominant, more powerful. In the egalitarian relationship, the imaginary friend and the child are on equal footing.

In the hierarchical relationship, an imaginary friend may boss the child around or direct him to a good hiding place. In other cases, the imaginary friend is under the child’s command, and must serve the child’s wishes. Imagine what a comfort this is to a child who is bossed around by her peers in real life! Finally, she gets to tell someone else what to do and get that friend to obey.

Children who have egalitarian relationships with their imaginary friends tend to be better than their peers at social coping. They’re already good at managing friendships and social situations. Interacting with the imaginary friend may be just a child’s way of practicing and improving existing skills. Having an imaginary friend does give a child a chance to practice both sides of the conversation. This teaches a child the best way to get his point across.

Whether friends as equals or otherwise, there are some things that are true of most children with imaginary friends. Children aged 3-6 with imaginary friends, are, in general, both more creative and more advanced in their social skills. They have larger vocabularies, use more complex sentence structures, and get along better with their real life friends.

If you think about it, you, as an adult, probably have imagined a conversation with a friend or acquaintance. Maybe you don’t like the way you handled an interaction at a party. You may reenact that conversation in your mind with different endings. You are thinking: What would have happened if I had said this instead of that?

This is very much like the conversations children have with their imaginary friends.

It is one of the marvelous things about being a human being: that we have an imagination. We can use that imagination to think about the future or to solve problems. For children, an imaginary friend can be a guide or a comfort or a way to understand things. The imaginary friend is there by command when the child is bored or lonely, and has no one to play with. An imaginary friend can soften  a difficult or stress-filled time, for instance, when the child is adjusting to a new baby brother or even a new home.

Imaginary Friends: The Magical Bubble

Adults can be surprised to learn that children with imaginary playmates know their friends aren’t real. Children with imaginary friends are, however, perfectly capable of separating out the fantasy from reality. Expert Tracy Gleason says, “The way I like to think about this is that there is this kind of magical bubble in which the children and their imaginary companions live. And they know that the bubble exists and they choose not to pop it.”

One of the great things about imaginary friends is that they are always available. Big sister doesn’t want to play? Imaginary friend to the rescue.

The imaginary friend is forgiving. Children can yell at imaginary friends. They’ll still be your (imaginary) friends.

A child wants to imagine the sky to be green and the grass blue? The imaginary friend is right there with the child to imagine it and “live” it, and most of all, laugh about it. No one has to know about the color switch, which makes it safe. No one will laugh at the child for being creative at play.

A list of some of the many things imaginary friends can do:

  • Provide companionship
  • Give the child a chance to try different ways of doing things
  • Allow the child to play in a more creative way
  • Offer a safe place to practice people skills
  • Permit children to test out strong emotions like anger and fear, in safety and in private
  • Let the child be the one in charge, the boss, when the child may be feeling powerless or vulnerable in real life
  • Empower the child to experience a rich internal private life that is safe from others’ eyes
  • Grant comfort when a child is stressed out by being there with unconditional (if imagined) love and acceptance

What can parents learn from a child’s imaginary friends?

A child’s relationship with an imaginary friend can help parents spot problems with their children. If an imaginary friend is afraid of something, for instance the dark, or dogs, the child may be wrestling with this fear and may be using the imaginary friend to express the fear and work through it. If the imaginary friend is always getting into trouble, it may be a sign that the child feels overwhelmed with too many rules or is being punished too often.

Of course, sometimes the imaginary child is used as the child’s scapegoat or to get out of doing an unpleasant task. A child may blame misbehavior on the imaginary friend, “Mr. Kipsy broke the window,” or a child may tell a parent that “Mr. Kipsy says I don’t have to go to bed right now.”

When imaginary friends are used in this manner, parents should see this as an opportunity. In the case of the broken mirror, a parent might say that everyone has accidents and makes mistakes, and not to worry. Then you tell the child that a broken window mess can be cleaned and the window replaced. Next you proceed to do just that. The child wants to know that you still love him, even when he makes mistakes or giant messes. You can say, “I love you, even when mistakes happen.”

In the case of imaginary friends overriding a parent’s command, remember that kids know their imaginary friends are imaginary. You can say, “Mr. Kipsy may say you don’t have to go to bed right now, but I am your mother, and I say it’s bedtime right now.”

Imaginary friends are a child’s cushion. Children have to take in an enormous amount of information as they are doing the important business of growing up. The world can seem a big and scary place. If imaginary friends give children a safe way to practice what to say and do and make that world safer and easier to take in, than that can only be a good thing. Always remember that imaginary friends are a sign that your child is good at finding ways to cope and move forward.

Be glad your child has an imaginary friend, acknowledge this as a benefit, and watch on with wonder. It’s a really cool phenomenon. And it will all be over before you can blink, leaving some really awesome memories the two (and not the three) of you can share for a lifetime.

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