All of us have heard of some famous imaginary friends such as Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore or Harvey, the rabbit. Most children with imaginary friends are considered normal. Dr. Datta Munshi discusses this aspect of children’s social-emotional development at healthychildren.org.
She describes the process of how children learn to interact with the world around them. Shortly after birth, an infant begins making eye contact with a parent while feeding, becomes quiet when the parent speaks to them and then begins to return their smile.
They begin to understand how different behaviors help them interact with the world. By age 2, children love to play alongside other children. They like to play — such as doing things they see their parents doing such as using the phone, vacuuming and dressing up. They like to act out everyday social interactions with toy figures.
By 3 years old, children link their imaginations and cooperative play skills together. They create stories with detailed scenes involving playmates, family members, pets and imaginary friends.
By ages 4 and 5, their growing imagination can blur the lines between their real and invented worlds. As children mature and gain more social skills, they slowly move away from their imaginary world that’s familiar and comfortable as they learn about the real world.
Having imaginary friendships doesn’t mean that a child is lonely or doesn’t have “real” friends. Children use their imaginary friends to try out their social skills and develop communication strategies.
Psychologist Dr. Marjorie Taylor has studied children who’ve had or do have imaginary friends and found they scored higher on emotional understanding measures. When children develop the realization that other people have different thoughts and beliefs other than their own, they’re able to grow in their development as they begin to understand emotions.
Children with imaginary companions tend to be less shy, engage in more laughing and smiling with peers and do better at tasks involving imagining how someone else might think.
In general, imaginary friends are normal and beneficial, but it’s important to discuss with your physician if you notice any of the following: other developmental concerns involving speech, talking patterns or social interactions; imaginary friends that never “go away” or are “always talking;” imaginary friends that are threatening or encouraging your child to use violence toward themselves or others; sudden changes in your child’s social interactions, hygiene, speech patterns or concentration abilities; or a strong history of mental illness, especially close relatives.
It’s all right to lay down the law if the imaginary friend becomes too disruptive and isn’t obeying the rules of the family. It’s appropriate to have your child clean up the mess even if the imaginary friend did it.
It’s also all right to set an extra plate or enjoy the tea party, but remember the child is in charge of their friend. Young children have rich imaginary lives, and they can be extremely generous in sharing. Enjoy.