Imaginary friends may seem strange or even creepy to adults depending on their description—but these fabricated characters are surprisingly common inventions of young children. In fact, around 65 percent of children under the age of seven are said to have had one at some point in time. But how does this fictional relationship work? Why do only certain children experience imaginary friendships? Why do the descriptions of these “friends” vary so much? Let’s look into it.
What Is an Imaginary Friend?
An imaginary friend or companion is any fictional character born of a child’s imagination whom they interact with. These characters can be based on another human or a stuffed animal, or even on nothing that actually exists.
Imaginary friends usually arrive on the scene when the child in question is somewhere between 2.5 and 3 years old (when their imagination starts developing) and typically disappear once the child has created real friendships with friends and family.
Why Do Children Have Them?
There are many theories that attempt to explain why children have imaginary friends—but the fact is, we have no concrete answers to that question. Some psychologists believe that children conjure up imaginary friends for the simple fun of it; after all, they are at an age when their imaginations are running wild, and playtime is much more exciting with an extra friend or two around.
Other explanations offered are slightly more serious in nature. In some cases, an imaginary companion could be used to fill the absence of much-needed real-life companions. For example, this might happen when an isolated only child longs for a sibling to play with. Indeed, for some children, having an imaginary friend may help them get through a lonely or stressful time in their life when no other outlet for expressing themselves is readily available. Still, psychologists advise parents not to panic when they find out their child has one.
A fair amount of research actually shows that having an imaginary companion is a healthy part of juvenile brain development—with possible benefits including improved creativity, sociability, coping mechanisms, and emotional intelligence. Imaginary friends can help children learn to problem-solve, overcome loneliness, explore interesting ideas and concepts, and expand knowledge of relationships and certain behaviors.
How Should Adults Respond?
Imaginary friends aren’t necessarily a problem. If your child has a made-up companion that sometimes stops by for dinner, feel free to play along and don’t worry too much. Your child will likely be overjoyed that you are participating in their little game.
However, while it’s totally normal for a young child to have an imaginary friend, there may be some reason for concern if your child is acting strange or fearful about that friend. For instance, they might refuse to speak to anyone when their friend is around or describe unsettling events that happened when they were together. This could be the result of mental health or psychological issues—or even problems outside of the home that you aren’t aware of. If you become concerned about your child’s imaginary friend, you can always talk to your pediatrician or a child psychologist to make sure it isn’t there to help your child cope with a problem you don’t know about.