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Is it normal? My child has an imaginary friend

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist

Question:

My 4-year-old has an imaginary friend. She has had her for about a year now. She makes space for her at the table and sometimes even pretends to feed her. What is the best way for me to deal with this?

Answer:

It's really nothing to worry about! It's common for preschool-age children to have imaginary friends or pretend animal friends or to insist their stuffed animals are "real." Your daughter is simply using her imagination, which is growing by leaps and bounds during these important years. Developmental psychologists call this "symbolic thinking," and it can show up in many different ways, including playing with dolls or action figures or using an everyday object (symbol) as a stand-in for an imaginary item (e.g., a fork becomes a rocket ship at the dinner table). Another term for this is "make-believe," and it is one of the many behaviors that make this age so delightful.

Sometimes a child uses her imaginary friend to explain her negative behavior, blaming her friend for throwing toys, making a mess or talking back, etc. This common behavior lets you know that your little one is starting to learn the difference between right and wrong but is still at a primitive level. She can't yet take full responsibility for her own actions. If this happens, remind her of the rules and encourage her to explain them to her "friend" as they clean up the mess or spend a few minutes in a time-out.

As for the best way for you to deal with it, my suggestions are simple:

  • Don't insist that the imaginary friend is not real. To your daughter, her friend is real.
  • Don't feel that you must interact with the imaginary friend. Do whatever feels natural to you; just be careful that you don't shame your daughter for having this companion.
  • Don't feel that you must take extra steps to make the imaginary friend part of your world. You don't have to set a place at the table or put an extra car seat in the car. Your child can pretend to do these things.

Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

09/22/2011:
"I have a question: My three and a half year old daughter attends a local Montessori school. I have observed her being mistreated by an assistant teacher and a day later she accused her lead teacher of hurting her physically by grabbing her arms too tight. She has shown some anger lately because her father and I have split, which is "normal" for a child going through a transition. Simultaneously, within the past few weeks, she has developed an imaginary friend, but this friend is only at school. He goes to his "pink house" at night rather than coming home with her. I was under the impression that normal imaginary friends follow the child everywhere; should I be even more concerned (than I already am) that this imaginary friend is only with her at school? Is it possible that she is creating him at that location to escape any stress that is occurring? Thanks in advance for your input. "
04/2/2009:
"My daughter had her imaginary friends removed from her in Pre-K. These friends and imaginary place were a 'safe place' for her to play and retreat to. When the school finally extinguished this from her behavior, her conduct became horrendous. She ultimately ended up 1 step from expulsion. She now has been diagnosed as EBD and has to consistently work on her conduct. While the 'removal' of her imaginary friends didn't cause her EBD (Emotional and Behavioral Disorder), it did remove one of her most effective coping mechanisms. :("
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