Imaginary friends: Cute or concerning?

Oct 4, 2013 at 3:00 p.m. ET

Sure, you thought that invisible friend at the dinner table was cute at first. Now she demands her own seat and her own glass of milk, and she expects to be tucked in at night. How much is too much? We found out why this "friend" is so important to your child — and when to worry.

Child with imaginary friend

Childhood friendships are an important building block for the foundation of your child's social and emotional well-being. But do all of these friends have to be real?

Having an imaginary friend — or several of them — is a way for some children to work through social situations in a safe way. Sounds good, but as a parent, how do you deal with the pretend friend?

Is this normal?

Parents may worry that the imaginary friend their child has dreamed up is an indication that something is wrong. However, according to Dr. Fran Walfish, Psy.D. — child and family psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent — the creation of imaginary friends is a normal stage of development. Children may create a buddy to keep them company when they feel lonely or to comfort them during times of stress. An imaginary friend understands you no matter what — even when your parents or siblings don't seem to.

"Imaginary friends are super important for children," says Rose Hanna, LMFT and professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach. "They provide a sense of security during bedtime, when they are told to be in bed and in the dark, usually by themselves."

Having an imaginary friend is also comforting to kids who may be dealing with anxiety.

"Usually, kids do not have the language capacity — or the insight — to talk about anxiety that they may have," adds Hanna. "So imaginary friends are made up instinctively to help children learn self-soothing strategies."

Try not to tease your child or talk down to her about the friend, because doing so may raise anxiety levels.

Friends fill a need

"Children develop relationships with imaginary friends, pets and other similar characters as ways to meet their needs for safety, love, power, fun and freedom," says Nancy S. Buck, Ph.D., developmental psychologist, expert in children's motivation and behavior and author of How to Be a Great Parent. "Sometimes, it is quite obvious what need the child is able to satisfy with his imaginary friend. For instance, a child who has a powerful wizard, or soldier or large bear as his imaginary friend is probably trying to meet his need for safety and security. A child who has an imaginary friend who is always committing acts against the rules, like breaking a precious vase or jewelry, is probably attempting to meet her need for freedom," she adds.

Buck's own children — identical twin sons — had an imaginary friend named Planner, who helped them meet their need for power and desire to be in charge of plans and schedules.

Are these friends really imaginary?

Another school of thought is that sometimes, the imaginary friends our children talk about might actually be spirits — and not imaginary at all. Terri Jay has been a medium for over 23 years and has counseled hundreds of parents who were concerned about this very thing.

"In some cases, it is just an overactive imagination," she shares. "But in many cases, children are picking up on the spirits of deceased children who have come to play in the physical world. Physics tells us that everything is energy and everything has a vibration and frequency. Children are much more sensitive to energies than adults are since they haven't been told it is not possible to sense, hear, feel and play with 'imaginary' children," she adds.

While this may be concerning to some parents, for others, it may be comforting.

When to worry

Is there a point at which parents should worry about an imaginary friend? Walfish notes that if your child assumes the personality traits of the imaginary friend or believes he and the imagnary friend are one and the same person, you may need to step in. As a parent, you should also gauge what the relationship between your child and his "friend" is. Ask your child if his friend is nice to him and if they play well together. Walfish says that if the imaginary friend is mean to your child, that may indicate that she is working through feelings of low self-esteem.

"Some children also have imaginary friends that are mean or bad," says Hanna. "This is also helpful in creating opportunities for kids to learn how to deal with any scary person or environment that they may face with other kids at their preschool, for example, or [in] any other situation. They can be in control of their imaginary friend and, in effect, reduce their stress or fear," she adds.

As always, listen to your gut instincts when your child talks about his friend and respond accordingly. If something feels wrong, talk it through with your child.

Bottom line

For most children, having an imaginary friend is a bridge that helps them move forward both emotionally and socially. Most of these friends will leave when your child is ready — so until then, set an extra seat at the table.

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