Your Child's Imaginary Friends, Explained

Imaginary friends may be invisible, but experts say they have some clear benefits. Here’s what parents need to know about these fantastical beings.

Young girl having an imaginary tea party with her unicorn stuffed animal.

Lauren Lee / Stocksy

Some 65% of young kids have imaginary friends, according to a study by Marjorie Taylor, Ph.D., author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. They're most likely to pop up during the preschool years, when kids have developed the ability for more complex forms of pretend play.

There's no one-size-fits-all standard for these dreamed-up allies. They can be human or completely fantastical. Some stick around for years; others get traded in every few months for a newer model. But what all imaginary friends have in common, says Dr. Taylor, are the benefits they offer to children. Read on to learn more about your little one's pretend friends.

Why Do Kids Have Imaginary Friends?

Preschoolers rarely get to call the shots in real life, and that's why they enjoy having complete control over their imaginary friends, explains Susan Linn, author of The Case for Make Believe and founder of Fairplay, headquartered in Boston. If your child's pretend pal is "doing" something they don't like, your child has the power to change the situation. Plus, it's just plain fun. "The sheer joy of creating an imaginary world and populating it can be really appealing to children this age," says Linn.

It's easy to worry that playing along when your kid asks you to set a place at the dinner table for their panda-bear pal might confuse them about fantasy and reality, but Dr. Taylor emphasizes that this is not the case. Although an imaginary friend may feel as real and special to preschoolers as an actual friend, their creators know they're made-up. "Parents tend to underestimate the ability of children this age to distinguish between fantasy and reality," says Dr. Taylor. In general, by the time kids have developed the skills necessary to create an imaginary companion, they have also developed the skills to know that their friend is pretend.

The Benefits of Imaginary Friends

Don't worry; your preschooler won't become a lonely person who invents friends because they don't have any in real life. Dr. Taylor's research found that not only do kids with made-up pals have as many flesh-and-blood friends as other kids, but they also tend to be more outgoing.

Imaginary friends help kids with everything from problem-solving skills to emotional wellness. Making decisions for their imaginary friends will help them gain confidence. What's more, they often channel their emotions through pretending. "An imaginary friend gives you a window into what your child is thinking about and working through," says Dr. Taylor. If your child comes to you with news that Mr. Itsy Bitsy is scared of making friends, they're providing you with an important opportunity to talk through something that may be bothering them.

Sometimes it's easier for kids to reveal their feelings through a third party, and there's no reason to press them to take ownership of the feelings. Instead, you can ask open-ended questions, like, "Why do you think Mr. Itsy Bitsy doesn't want to meet new friends at school?" Your child may or may not own up to feeling anxious themselves, but you can always ease their worries indirectly. Say, "Yes, sometimes children feel nervous about making new friends, but once they get to school they realize that the kids in their class are really nice, and that it's fun to have someone to play house or Legos with. Do you think Mr. Itsy Bitsy would feel better if he knew that?"

How to Boost Your Child's Imagination

While you can't prompt your child to cook up an imaginary friend, you can provide the opportunity by giving them downtime, quiet, and space. Kids need a chance to get a little bored first in order to shift their imagination into high gear and create a friend from thin air, so switch off the television, computer, and video games. You might want to check out a book about visualizing, such as Guion the Lion, by Rebecca Wilson Macsovits. It's all about creating a vivid imaginary world, and it can help your child look forward to quiet time so they can invent their own dreamscape.

And remember, not all kids develop made-up companions. If yours hasn't acquired any, it doesn't mean they're not creative: it just means that when they don't have someone to play with, they would rather be doing something else, like building with blocks or coloring.

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Children have less unstructured free time than ever before, but play is beneficial to their mental health and overall well-being. Read more of Parents’ deep dive on how kids play today—plus tips for caregivers to get involved in—and even lead—the fun.

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