How To Understand Imaginary Friends

The name alone will intrigue you. When you first become aware of your child's imaginary friend or friends, you'll be curious as to the details. Those on the early end of the Baby Boomer generation might recall James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd in the movie, "Harvey." Elwood's imaginary friend, Harvey, was a six foot three and a half inch invisible white rabbit who accompanied him everywhere. All well and good but that Elwood was an adult. If your child has an imaginary friend now, don't worry that the imaginary friend will last until adulthood or even beyond his childhood years. In fact, your child's imaginary friend functions as a companion and support to help your child transition from his childhood with grace and ease.

Here are a few facts to help you better understand your child's imaginary friends:

  1. Imaginary friends allow your child to explore and express his inner life. The conversations your child has with his imaginary friend (or friends) as well as the activities they engage in together can reveal much to you about your child's inner life. Children can sometimes use their imaginary friends to express parts of themselves that are repressed. For example, a shy child might have a very loud and outgoing imaginary friend who is always getting into trouble. For a small sampling of the variety of flavors that imaginary friends come in, check out IUsedToBelieve.

  2. Imaginary friends can help your child distinguish right from wrong. Don't be surprised if your child's imaginary friend is the one to get blamed for any transgressions. This is not a "bad sign." (No, he is not developing multiple personality disorder!) Your child is showing that while he can distinguish right from wrong, he is not completely ready to embrace all the rules just yet. By having the imaginary friend be the one to break rules, he is getting to have his cake and eat it, too, sometimes right before dinner! Remember that your child is experimenting (quite creatively, by the way) with boundaries, right vs. wrong, and who he is in relation to others.

  3. Let your child be Stage Manager. Follow your child's lead as to how involved you should be in his relationship with his imaginary friend. Your child may see it as a private relationship that you are not a part of, except perhaps to provide the props. Or your child may wish that you join in the play with his imaginary friend. Treat the imaginary friend with respect, and embrace the friend to the degree that is provided by your child's lead. Always remember, though, that your child provides the story line, not you......he is the Stage Manager in this particular game of pretend.

  4. Imaginary friends are good companions. The world becomes larger and larger to a child as he ages and an imaginary friend can help him to navigate his way through it. Imaginary friends can act as important companions to your child during his pretend play, and as the keepers of your child's secrets. Remember that a big part of growing up is learning how to comfort oneself-your child has come up with a resourceful way to do so.
  5. When the imaginary friends go bye-bye. Although it was once believed that children should begin to release their imaginary friends between the ages of three and five, more recent research indicates that many children retain their imaginary friends until around the age of seven. Sometimes imaginary friends can make a dramatic exit-such as being hit by a car-but sometimes they just stop coming by. As your child begins to lose his imaginary friends, you can let them go, too.

  6. All good things-including imaginary friends-in moderation. If your child wants to hang out only with his imaginary friends, and not his real-life peers, or if your child says that his imaginary friend makes him do things that he doesn't want to, then the imaginary friend is probably indicative of more deep-seated issues. But more often than not, the imaginary friend acts as a companion who accepts your child unconditionally and provides comfort and support without any of the challenges or anxieties that occur in real-life relationships.

So relax and enjoy your child's imaginary friend. Before you know it, Pookie will be gone and you might even miss him!


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You're the first mom I've heard from who has confirmed this imaginary friend thing. My daughter has 3 imaginary friends, and they have wierd names. Two boys and a girl. And yes, she DOES blame these friends when she does something wrong. I find the whole concept very cute, and relish it before she grows up and it becomes just a memory.

By Sadaf Farooqi