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There are an amazing number of "experts" out there that will tell you that if your child has an imaginary friend(s) – as a parent you should really be concerned. After all, according to them, that may mean that your child is;

-Anti-social - (doesn't want any real friends)  

-Shy - (can't make any real friends)

-You are not spending enough time with the child - (your fault)

-Perhaps the child has extremely low self-esteem (which is also probably your fault)

Such statements and attitudes are absolute rubbish! While they may be true in certain extreme circumstances, generally these beliefs are completely wrong. The fact is that 2/3 of children have spoken to or played with an imaginary friend by the time they are seven years old. The child is simply expressing creativity. The friend can be anything from a dragon - to a cute teddy bear – to a stranger or different person. These friends can serve many useful purposes for the child. Some of the major purposes they can provide are;

-An outlet for the child's natural creativity

-Provide an outlet to speak their mind to and/or tell secrets to that they are not ready to tell others at that time.

-Sometimes they can provide an outlet for the child to help develop a sense of right and wrong. For example, blaming a broken toy on the imaginary friend may demonstrate that the child knew that what happened was wrong – but the child isn't quiet ready yet to accept the responsibility.

The attitudes that having an imaginary friend is somehow dysfunctional can be potentially harmful because they can mislead the parent into stifling the child's natural creativity and denying the child potentially useful coping mechanisms.

Of course, anything that is taken to the extreme is usually not productive. To help keep everything on the right track and to avoid accidental extremes, here are some general guidelines that should be followed;

-Do not let the child blame all mishaps or misdeeds on the imaginary friend.

-Acknowledge that the imaginary friend exists and listen when the child describes them to you. Handle this very casually and do not make a big deal out of it.

-Avoid telling the child that the friend is not real and that they shouldn't have one.

-Don't go to the other extreme and go out of your way to make the friend a part of the family – like setting another place at the table. Again, just a casual acknowledgement is sufficient. When you emphasize the friend – they will probably just stick around longer and appear more often because the child thinks that having an imaginary friend also pleases you.

-Be sure your child has other friends. Schedule play dates with other children. Promote social interactions at school or daycare. You never want the imaginary friend to be the only friend that your child has.

I remember one particular Christmas when my daughter was about 5 years old. I bought her what I thought was a wonderful and very detailed play-set. At the time it was rather expensive. Later that day I found that she had taken the box that the play-set had come in to her room. She turned the box into an imaginary "dragon's cave" and spent many happy days having wonderful adventures in the dragon's cave with her imaginary friend (a girl about her age). She never really played with the toy set. Daddy learned an important lesson that Christmas about well meaning toys that can accidentally suppress creativity and imagination.  

In time the child will outgrow the need to have an imaginary friend. So relax – go with the flow – and enjoy your child's creativity.  

**James is a Masters level Child Psychologist and Internationally Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor who has worked with distressed families for 40 years. He is the author of the Seamus the Sheltie series of children's books that were designed to assist parents in discussing difficult issues with younger children. Both books have received multiple national awards from parenting organizations. Mr. Beverly has written and published articles on parenting in a variety of media.

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Member Comments

    • +1 votes vote up vote up

      Cynthia Schmidt wrote Aug 30, 2009
    • Thank you. I had imaginary friends as a child and now I notice our 4 year old granddaughter does too. She’s adorable to listen to as she converses with Marsha the kitty and others. When she is in her bath, we sit in the bedroom out of view of her and listen away, often putting our hands over our mouths so she doesn’t hear us laughing. She has a wonderful imagination.

      This also gives us a chance to hear if she may be working out any issues during her alone time play. She knows we‘re there, though, and when she is finished she calls us and tells us she’s ready to get out of her bath.

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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      James Beverly wrote Aug 31, 2009
    • Thanks Cynthia - what a wonderful story.

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    • +1 votes vote up vote up

      Mary Clark wrote Aug 31, 2009
    • I had an imaginary friend when I was young.  His name was Tommy...and I’m not sure how long he was a friend, but eventually I told my family that he had drown.  What a way to get rid of him.......

      ....and I was very sociable.

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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      UK Girl wrote Aug 31, 2009
    • I had one but mine was naughty and got into all kinds of scrapes ....obviously I was very good and my friend Pinch was naughty ..

      MC I’m howling laughing at your drowning - sorry it’s just amused me no end ...

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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Jldixon wrote Aug 31, 2009
    • Oh, I had an imaginary friend, she lived in the attic, and her name was gooley-gooley. (don’t ask how she got her name, I have NO idea!)  Guess it means something in imaginary friend world though. LOL  but my daughter had quiet a few imaginary friends.  One was a monkey who used to really bother her, she would cry and tell me that it was hanging from her ceiling fan and it would get on her back and not get off, and jump from her bed to her dresser!  It was a bad little monkey. (She was about 4 at the time.)    I swear this to be the truth to.  Our whole family are hunters and she was no stranger to target practice, mounted animals heads, hunting dogs and yes gun safety, even at that age, just to get that out of the way first.  So, I asked her if she wanted mommy to get rid of it, and through her tear soaked eyes she told me “please mommy, it’s mean to me“, so luckily we lived out in the country, because I went into the room, yanked it off of the ceiling fan, took it outside and shot it with my .22.  :o)  No more monkey, and I didn’t hear anything about it again.  But she also had 2 other friends their names were “Jeb” and “Curl“.  When we moved from SC to Florida, Jeb and Curl came with us, Jeb was the one who got in trouble all the time, he actually fell out of the car on the highway when we were coming down here, but we picked him up at the next gas station when we stopped, he was fine, and she had them until she was about half way between kindergarden and first grade.

      I think they can be great for the imagination and also great companions when a child is an only child or a much younger sibling.  My imaginary friend offered comfort at night when I was scared of the dark, and also gave me somebody to talk to and play with when I was lonely.

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