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Why kids have imaginary friends — and what it means

Imaginary friends are most common among preschoolers, though can continue into early adolescence.
Little girl sitting on the floor at home while drawing and coloring on a paper.
Having an imaginary friend is healthy and normal, but what does it mean?Manu Vega / Getty Images stock
/ Source: TODAY

Is your child all of a sudden playing with an imaginary friend? Parents whose children develop an invisible playmate might be wondering why this is happening or what it means.

Dr. Ashley M. Whitaker, board certified pediatric neuropsychologist at the Curry Psychology Group in California, told TODAY Parents that imaginary friends are known in the field of psychology as an imaginary companion, or IC.

"These pretend friends can be completely invisible or personified in a toy or other item where a child attributes human characteristics to an inanimate object," Whitaker said.

Whitaker said that imaginary companions are most common among preschool-aged children, but can continue into early adolescence as well.

"They often remain a longstanding and stable presence within a child’s life for several months to years," she said.

Related: What is neurodivergent? What parents need to know

Why kids have imaginary friends

Imaginary companions are related to pretend play and Whitaker told TODAY that they can have several benefits: 

  • Imaginary friends can help children make sense of the world by exploring experiences beyond their own concrete understanding. "By mentally creating and manipulating an IC, a child can use their imagination to test out various scenarios and gain better insight into differing perspectives," Whitaker said.
  • Imaginary friends can provide companionship, such as in the case of an only child, though do not necessarily indicate the need for socializing.
  • Having an IC can be protective for children who are at risk for mental health challenges. 

Related: These moms’ creative photos capture kids with ‘imaginary’ friends

Are imaginary friends healthy?

Contrary to older beliefs, imaginary companions are not indicative of mental health concerns, or confusion between fantasy and reality. 

"ICs have actually been associated with increased emotional understanding, which leads to positive social interactions and relationships, creativity and narrative skills, and thinking (or) reasoning abilities," Whitaker told TODAY Parents.

Whitaker said parents should not be concerned if a child does not have an imaginary friend.

"Not all children develop ICs and there are many other ways to engage in symbolic play and foster the development of social and cognitive skills," she said.

The California-based psychologist cautioned parents against criticizing a child for having an imaginary companion or repeatedly pointing out the imaginary companion is not real.

While ICs can be a way to help foster growth and learning, Whitaker said, "parents and caregivers should be careful not to use ICs to try and manipulate a child, for example telling a child 'You should eat your peas because your imaginary friend is eating her peas.'"

Can imaginary friends be dangerous?

Imaginary companions are developmentally appropriate and can have many benefits, but Whitaker told TODAY Parents there are a few situations in which parents or caregivers may wish to consult with a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional:

  • The majority of relationships with ICs are positive, so if the relationship appears overly negative (e.g., an excessively critical IC) or if themes of aggression, violence, or harm to self or others dominate interactions with ICs, it is important to address underlying factors with a psychologist or other licensed mental health provider.
  • Most children can easily shift between interacting with ICs and engaging with tangible friends, so if a child seems consumed by an IC to the exclusion of other typical peer interactions and activities, or is withdrawing in other aspects of life to engage with an IC, parents or caregivers may wish to further explore potential underlying risk factors or stressors contributing to these behaviors with a qualified professional.
  • While ICs can play a protective role in elementary school children, ICs that persist into adolescence or adulthood can be indicative of underlying psychosocial needs.