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The Realities of Imaginary Friends

The Realities of Imaginary Friends

So your preschooler’s new friend “Katie” is actually an invisible giraffe? Congratulations! Your little one has joined the creative ranks of children with imaginary friends. Since imaginary friends can leave you puzzled (after all, what’s normal for a fictional friendship?), here's a list of 5 pretend playmate realities to reassure you.

1. They’re Common

It’s completely normal and healthy for a young child to invent an imaginary playmate. In one 2004 study, 65% of children up to age 7 reported having imaginary friends at some point. It’s also natural for a child to have more than one imaginary friend. As Phyllis H. shared: “My 4 year old has half a dozen.”

2. They’re Incredibly Diverse

Don’t be spooked if your child’s imaginary friend isn’t human or a normal size—imaginary friends come in all shapes and sizes. When Stina B. was a child, “a small village worth of ‘Micey people’” lived in her bathroom, while Michaela T.’s daughter invents both animals and miniature people: “My daughter seems to have a new imaginary friend every week...sometimes it’s a horse, sometimes a tiny little man.” And Ashley M.’s sister may top them all: “She used to play shop with God.”

3. They Arrive for Different Reasons

Why do kids create imaginary friends? Mostly, because it’s fun! In addition to the joy of pretend play, children create imaginary friends to help them face fears, practice being in a friendship, or work out boundaries. As Anna R. shares: “Think of it as great imagination and possibly a ‘safety blanket’ for your child. It is also a way for your child to role play in the absence of other children.” Hannah L. agrees: “Imaginary friends are a good way to help children practice speech and understand the world around them.”

4. They Should Follow House Rules

Imaginary friends often become scapegoats for naughty behavior; at other times, you’ll hear outrageous stories about the trouble an imaginary friend has gotten into. Both scenarios are ways for children to test boundaries. As such, it’s important for the imaginary friend to face consequences for misbehavior. As Amanda H. shared of her daughter’s imaginary friend: “Deego was banned from our house a few times. I even had to call his mom. He was troublesome and would do things he shouldn’t.” Michelle S. used a similar strategy: “I just set down any friend, they have to behave and clean up after themselves. No being rude or mean. When it’s bedtime or naptime, the dragons and monsters have to go home or stay with me in the living room. If we are out the dragons are to sit nicely and not be rude.”

5. They Won’t Stay Forever

Parents rarely need to worry that a child is getting too old for an imaginary friend. Imaginary friends generally disappear—whether by moving to a different city, dying in terrible accident, or simply being forgotten—before a child begins kindergarten, or else soon thereafter. As Marilee H. shared: “Since he started school they are all forgotten. He got out with more kids his own age and he never needed them again.”

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