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Imaginary Friends

Just because your child is talking to someone you can't see doesn't mean she's ready for the psychiatrist's couch. In fact, research shows that by age seven, nearly two-thirds of children have had at least one imaginary friend. While parents may worry that these relationships will cause a child to become an introvert, inhibit real relationships, or be a precursor to mental illness, quite the opposite is true. Psychologists say imaginary friends help children sort through the confusing issues of life such as right and wrong, control, discipline, friendship, and even coping with trauma. By the time your child enters elementary school, she will likely have parted ways with her imaginary friends. But it's not that uncommon for a child to form her first imaginary friendship after she's started school, either.

Parents should be concerned when:

  • The child prefers the company of an imaginary friend to time with her peers.
  • The child becomes the subject of ridicule.
  • The imaginary friend becomes malicious.

General guidance for parents in dealing with invisible friends includes:

  • Don't pry. In general, it's best to let your child introduce you to her friend.
  • Don't try to persuade your child to give up her friend; instead, let the friendship run its course.
  • Go along with the friendship, but don't add to the scenario your child has created.
  • Don't discourage the relationship or belittle the friend.
  • Show the friend respect, remembering his name, greeting him when your child calls your attention to his presence, and apologizing when your child points out you've accidentally sat on him.
  • Don't let the imaginary friend be your child's only friend; instead, if this is the case, take positive steps to remedy solitary behavior.
  • Don't let the imaginary friend catch the blame for everything. Use your judgment as to what's excusable and what's not.
  • Listen to your child's interaction with her friend when possible. You may gain valuable insights into why this friendship is necessary.

Studies show that children with imaginary playmates tend to be more creative and intelligent. So set your worries aside with the assurance that, like childhood itself, imaginary friends aren't forever.