8 Things Every Mom Needs to Know About Imaginary Friends

8 Things Every Mom Needs to Know About Imaginary Friends

You can’t see these buddies, but they are big in your kids’ lives. We have all the info.

By Heather Chaet

George has been a part of my family’s life for about four years now. Sometimes he’s talked about, sometimes he’s absent for months, and then, sometimes, he pops up for a few days or weeks for a little bit of fun.

George is not a neighbor or a relative. George is a yellow cat with purple polka dots. Oh, and he can fly, using his tail as a propeller, of course. You see, George is my daughter’s imaginary friend. He was created right about the time she entered preschool. He was just there with us, on the subway, one Tuesday morning as we commuted to school. He was with us every day for about a nine-month stretch. Now, George just makes an appearance every so often.

Imaginary friends are a phase of a kid’s life that is fun, but one that can also make us moms scratch our heads a bit. Here, educational and behavioral therapist Cara Day explains everything parents need to know about imaginary friends.

1. Imaginary friends are really common. “It's important for parents to know that about one-third of children will create an imaginary friend, and those friends will typically stick around for a few days to a few years,” says Day. According to information from the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center, about 65 percent of kids ages 3 to 5 create imaginary friends, and one-third continue to play with them until the age of 7.

2. When your child creates an imaginary friend, it doesn’t mean he can’t make real ones. Just because your son has created an imaginary 3-foot superhero named Ji-Jay-Jo to hang out with at home, you don’t have to worry that he’s playing by himself at recess. “Contrary to a common misperception, imaginary friends have little to do with a child's ability or inability to make friends in real life,” says Day. “Rather, imaginary friends show up primarily as a way for children to explore their own creativity, emotions, fears, roles, and independence.”

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3. Imaginary friends provide the perfect way for your child to be in control. “Children have many things in their lives over which they have little or no control,” notes Day. “An imaginary friend can be something that is just for the child. It is something they have total control of, creating a very safe space for them to play with ideas and emotions.”

4. Imaginary friends help foster good thinking skills. “This imaginary friend and imaginary world has no limits, because it is created in the child's imagination,” explains Day. “This provides the child with an outlet for innovative thinking and problem solving that no one can interfere with.” Your child’s real world is expanding and becoming larger and larger every day, so creating an imaginary friend to help him or her navigate that world is not only creative, but also rather clever.

5. Imaginary friends help kids work through tough situations and other developmental milestones. “The imaginary friend allows a child to project a fear they may have onto another in a helpful way,” says Day. “Whether a child has suffered a trauma or is just navigating everyday life, imaginary friends can become a tool for self-soothing.” These strategies for coping and self-soothing are important for all children to have.

“The imaginary friend might share the fear, which can help the child gain a sense of normalcy, or the imaginary friend might help the child overcome a fear in some way or another during their ‘play,’” explains Day. “If disturbing insights come from the imaginary friendship, these can be explored with a professional, if desired. More often than not, even if something sounds a little off, it is usually just the child playing with an idea or fear that has come up for them, and he or she needs a release. Imaginary friends provide a healthy way for children to do this.”


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6. You can play with the imaginary friend, too -- within limits. “Parents should ‘go along with it’ in a casual way,” suggest Day, emphasizing that parents be sure to avoid shaming or belittling their child in any way around their imaginary friend. “The parent should avoid showing any negative emotions around the imaginary friendship by using a neutral, calm tone whenever discussing the imaginary friend. And it's up to the child to invite another into this imaginary world.” If you are invited to play with the imaginary friend, your child should always direct what you play, since this world is under his or her control.

7. It’s OK to pull up an extra chair (or pour an extra glass of water) for the imaginary friend. Though parents may think this is taking it too far, supporting the friendship, in whatever way, is essential. “If the child wants their friend to participate in some element of family life, such as sitting at the table, or having a seat in the car, the parent can accommodate in a simple way, but should not overdo it,” suggests Day. “It's important for the child to remain in charge of the friendship so he or she can also retain the total right to release the friendship when that time comes.”

The key here is to gently set limits to these actions, and, sometimes, remind your child that, since the friend is imaginary, it doesn’t need an extra ticket purchased at the movies or a special side of fries ordered at dinner.

8. There will be a time to say goodbye. You’ll do well not to push your child to get rid of his or her imaginary friend. Rest assured, there will be a point at which Bucky, the blue ostrich with the top hat, isn’t around anymore. “It's great for parents to recognize imaginary friendships as a phase that, like any other phase, will eventually pass,” says Day.

Remember, even after the imaginary friend goes away, it may return if your child needs reassurance for a difficult transition, such as a move, or to help cope during a life change, like a new baby’s arrival.

How have you dealt with your child’s imaginary friend?

Heather Chaet documents her mini parenting successes, epic mommy fails, and everything in between for a plethora (love that word!) of publications and websites such as CafeMom, New York Family, and AdWeek. While her online persona is found at heatherchaet.com, Heather lives in New York City with her film director husband and one insanely curious, cat-obsessed daughter.

Image ©iStock.com/gradyreese

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