Taking your child’s imaginary friends by the hand

Mar 9, 2008 at 3:00 p.m. ET

With the wild imagination that children have, it's common for your child's world to suddenly double - or triple - with imaginary playmates. From pretend buddies to invisible pets, preschoolers play with, confide in and blame things on these make-believe pals. These fantasy friends can be cute at times, but if your child's growing imagination has you climbing the walls, it may be hard to decide whether you should call a ghost buster or go with the flow.

Before you pick up the phone book, Dr. Marjorie Taylor, Ph.D., University of Oregon, assures that this is normal. "While children with real emotional problems often have imaginary companions, having an imaginary companion does not mean that the child has problems." In fat, this form of play can help them to develop socially and emotionally. Dr. Taylor has found that children use made-up playmates to share their feelings, confide in with secrets and express themselves to their parents.

My three-year-old son has an invisible puppy. It started with just one, but now he has three. At first it was cute, and we played along. Then he became so consistent with it that we started to wonder: Was this an imaginary puppy playmate or a ghost from pets past? After a little research, we found that our last dog is alive and well, so we've come to embrace the expansion of our family – especially since they do not take up much room.

Here are a few other parents who are finding their households expanding by the make-believe dozen:


"When my daughter Margaret was about three years old, her imaginary friends Rofey and Cokey were always with her… especially since it was usually their fault, not hers. It was something she carried with her until she was four. I was surprised that she had imaginary friends, considering she was the youngest of nine children, but she still managed to find time for her two best imaginary buddies!
- Arlene G, mother of nine, Tucson, AZ


"When Elva was a little over a year old she started playing with someone. The very first time I noticed anything she pointed and said "baby." As she got older and was able to talk, she said that her friend's name is Hennie. We had to be careful not to sit on Hennie or place our bags and things on the chair Hennie was sitting. Hennie was always a positive thing for her. She would make her laugh, and if Elva acted up, Hennie told her she needed to behave. I think she was about 5 years old when we stopped hearing about Hennie and if she does mention her now, she says it's her imaginary friend. Before, Hennie was very real to her."
- Elva M., mother to 6-year-old Elva, Rialto, CA


"My daughter is now 11 years old, but when she was a toddler, she used to hold her hands out to be picked up by someone that we couldn't see. As she got a little older, she would hold up her hand as if it was being held. When we asked her about it, she said it was Grandma Kay, her grandmother that had passed. Some people might be spooked by something like this, but it makes me feel better knowing that perhaps she is still watching over us."
– Lori C., mother of three, Henderson, NV


"One time we were in the car and my three-year-old daughter Gina was saying, "No, look at the cars!" And when she was watching her movie, she was saying, "Shhh, I'm watching the movie!" When we got to the restaurant, we walked in and she tripped. When I asked her if she was OK, she replied, "Alex tripped me." When I asked her who Alex was, she replied, "My friend." I know she does not have any friends named Alex, so I must say, it was a little hair-raising at first, but I suppose "imaginary friends" are part of most children's early childhood.
– Anna Hess, mother to three-year-old Gina, Hacienda Heights, CA


"When I was a kid, I had giant imaginary ants in my room, and they didn't wear any clothes! They were pink and only came out at night, but according to my mom, I was never scared. She told me she found cans of food under my bed, which I claimed were for the ants. In a large family, I think I just needed something that felt all my own."
- Barbara M. mother of two, Mesa, AZ

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