Watching your daughter talk animatedly to an empty chair is unnerving the first time. You know about imaginary friends, of course, but setting a plate for a playmate, you know you will never see? Well, we get it. But before you even suggest to your little one that her "pretend playmate" has to go, here are a few things you should know: 1. A lot of kids have them. “Having an imaginary friend is definitely common, and it’s definitely normal,” Celeste Kidd, a cognitive researcher and co-director of the University of Rochester Kid Lab, told Fatherly. “Most imaginary friends should not raise an eyebrow for parents. But it’s also normal for kids not to have imaginary friends. That’s not a problem either.”
Kids like to play pretend. Sometimes they imagine that objects like dolls and stuffed animals or even things like cars are alive and have personalities. Some children take playing pretend a step further and create an invisible friend from scratch, explained Eileen Kennedy-Moore Ph.D., a psychologist and parenting expert, in an article for Psychology Today.
2. Imaginary friends can be a he, she, it and everything else. By 7 years old, 65 percent of children will have had an imaginary friend at some point, according to research by psychologists from the University of Washington and University of Oregon. And these invisible beings can take on many forms, shapes, and sizes.
“Children’s imaginary companions do not fall into neat categories with respect to their physical characteristics, personality, function, or anything else,” said the study. They can be based on real life (real persons, toys, characters in books and TV, etc.) or solely from your child’s imagination (a Mr. Unicorn Cottoncloud?). Whatever they may be, expect a lot of personality from them! 3. Consider imaginary friends as a milestone. Kids have imaginary friends when they’re developmentally ready for it, which can be as early as 3 years old, said BabyCenter. Before your child can create an imaginary friend, she needs to have an understanding of how another person behaves, responds and acts. It’s a pretty big deal for a young child.
“Imaginary friends tend to develop in kids at a time when kids are increasingly becoming socially aware,” said Kidd. “To simulate another social being you need to be able to understand a lot about what people are like.”
4. Imaginary friends help your child learn. Having a friend that’s around whenever your child wants him/her/it to be there has its advantages. For one, having an imaginary friend is a way of learning about social interaction and practicing social skills. Kids have arguments and fights with their invisible buddies, for example.
“Imaginary friends can also help children to cope with fears, explore ideas, or gain a sense of competence through learning from or taking care of the imaginary friend,” said Kennedy-Moore. Just like how real friends help a person grow, so does your child’s pretend one.
5. Yes, your child knows it’s not real. Even though it’s very convincing how your child pretends his friend to be real, just like you, he knows it’s make-believe. “Kids can separate what’s real life and what’s fantasy life. They know it’s pretend play,” Kimberly Eckert, a registered psychologist, told Today’s Parent. This brings us to the next point. Because it’s just pretend, it’s okay to… 6. Play along. Just like how your child asks you to play restaurant, doctor-doctor, or house, imaginary friends are just another pretend play, said Kidd. Hence, it’s all right to ride along with your child’s active imagination. In fact, you can take advantage of this. “If your child has an invisible friend, relax and enjoy it! Ask questions to find out more about the friend. You may learn something about your child’s current interests, wishes, fears, or concerns,” said Kennedy-Moore.
Unless your child is engaging in worrisome behavior in connection with his imaginary friend, invisible buddies are common, and even normal, for children to have. If you’re concerned, however, check in with a medical professional.