One minute, you're down on the floor playing with your child. The next, you're asked to shove over to make room for "Candy," an invisible friend that lives in the woods — oh, and would you mind leaving so she and Candy can play alone? What gives? "Children’s imaginations begin developing around 2½ to 3 years of age, marking the start of pretend play, and in 65% of children, that comes with the arrival of an imaginary friend or two," says Susan Newman, Ph.D., social psychologist and author of The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide. Pretend buddies are common, but the reasons for them vary, as does the length of time they stick around.
Why do children have imaginary friends?
Well, mostly, because they're fun. "Children are naturally imaginative, and exercising their imaginations is good for their emotional and mental health," says Laura Markham, Ph.D., author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. "Kids who have imaginary friends enjoy them, so they always have someone to play with if they feel lonely or bored. My daughter at ages 3 and 4 used to say, 'I'm going to play with Betsy now,' and then yak away for half an hour in her bedroom."
Sometimes, the imaginary friends might also fill in a gap that other playmates don't. "A child with few friends may create one," says Samantha Rodman, Ph.D., author of How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce. "A kid who never gets to choose what to play — being the youngest, let's say — always can choose what to play with his imaginary friend. In childhood, a way to create your perfect friend is to conjure him up in your mind."
Parents of only children, however, don't have to worry that the arrival of a pretend playmate means their child is craving a brother or sister. "For forever, people have erroneously believed that only children have imaginary friends to compensate for the absence of siblings," Dr. Newman says. "This is a myth, as two-thirds of all children — with or without siblings — have been found to have imaginary friends."
Are imaginary friends real?
Of course, imaginary friends aren't really real, but how real are they to your kids? "Most children are aware their pretend friends are not real," Dr. Newman says. "In young children, pretend or fantasy friends are a sign of developing imagination." So you don't have to worry that you'll be doing some kind of long-standing damage if you forget that Candy was sitting on a couch and plopped down on top of her.
How far you have to play along with your kid's imaginary friend is really up to you and your child — but set limits.
If, suddenly, Candy starts requesting dinner, or breaking things when no one is looking, you have to figure out some ground rules. "For the most part, you can allow your child to decide how much you can engage in his or her fantasy," Dr. Newman says. "Respect your child and let her take the lead. If the 'friend' often rides in the family car, don’t ask if she’s joining you today; wait to be told.
Once given the okay by your child, it’s fine to talk to or about the imaginary friend, but it’s is important for children to remain in control of the fantasy. Interfering too much can cause friction, anger, or power struggles."
When do imaginary friends become a problem?
If Candy's demands start getting out of hand, you're allowed to say no. "Indulging your child can be a nice way to bond and show respect and love," Dr. Rodman says. "But doing anything that causes you or other family members more stress is not recommended. Don't let your child's imaginary friend turn into a way for your child to exert massive control over the family. Putting out an extra plate with imaginary food is fine, but serving a whole dinner sends the wrong message."
And, at some point or another, children will experiment with acting out under the guise of or at the direction of the pretend buddy. "Imaginary friends usually only become problematic when a child blames their misbehavior on the imaginary friend," she adds. "In this case, the child should be taught that they will be responsible for whatever they or their imaginary friend does."
Another red flag to watch out for? Preferring the imaginary friend to real ones, which is uncommon and could be a signal something else is going on. "Kids who have imaginary friends usually tend to be more social than other children," Dr. Markham says. "But if a parent notices that the child refuses opportunities to engage with other children and instead plays with the imaginary friend, I would want to understand how the child is experiencing their social world. Does the child have some social anxiety? Are they being bullied?"
Imaginary friends, sadly, are not associated with intelligence — but, thankfully, there's no link to mental illness, either.
There is no evidence that shows the presence of a pretend friend can be linked to future IQ, but research does show some commonalities among children who have them. "Kids who have imaginary friends are more skilled in what we call perspective-taking — they can see things from another person's point of view," Dr. Markham says. "We don't know, however, if this is chicken or egg. Do they develop this skill from having an imaginary friend, or do they already have this skill, which makes it easier to imagine the experience of the imaginary friend?"
Dr. Newman also points to The House of Make-Believe, written by Jerome Singer, Yale emeritus of psychology, and research assistant Dorothy Singer. "They studied preschoolers extensively," Dr. Newman says. "They found that children who create make-believe friends tend to be more imaginative, have richer and fuller vocabularies, and are better able to entertain themselves. The Singers also discovered that children with imaginary friends get along better with classmates."
"There is no evidence that they have any issues with mental health," Dr. Marhkam adds. "It's not the same as Dissociative Identity Disorder or having multiple personalities, which is extremely rare in any case. Children who have imaginary friends grow up to be creative, imaginative, social adults."
So, when do they leave? Is it normal to have an imaginary friend at 13?
Imaginary friends usually retreat by around age 9 — but some linger, and that's okay.
Most of the time, imaginary friends tend to go away on their own as children become more invested with playing with their (real) peers. "My own daughter lost track of Betsy once we moved from Michigan to New York when she was four," Dr. Markham says. "When I asked about Betsy, she said Betsy had stayed in Michigan. Most imaginary friends fade as childhood fades."
In some cases, the friend doesn't truly go away, but the child will stop talking about him for fear of being made fun of. If your kid holds on to her imaginary friend for longer, there isn't reason to worry. "It's completely fine," Dr. Markham adds. "Again, I would intervene if there is something else worrisome going on, like a teen who can't relate to peers. But if the teen is managing their life well, then an imaginary friend isn't a problem."
In fact, some choose to keep their imaginary friends into adulthood. "Agatha Christie famously said in her autobiography that she had imaginary friends as an adult," she notes. "I also know one adult woman who says she has an imaginary tiger who travels with her and keeps her safe. She knows the tiger isn't real, but when she feels scared, the tiger reassures her and helps her feel less anxious. I thought that was brilliantly adaptive in helping her manage her anxiety!"
So your child's imaginary friend may be a nuisance — asking you to make room for him on the couch, demanding plate after plate of pretend cookies — but he's not problem. "Having an imaginary friend or friends will likely become part of family lore — to be rehashed and delight everyone in the family for decades to come," Dr. Newman says.
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