Should I Be Concerned About My Child’s Imaginary Friend?

Having an imaginary friend can often be quite normal for a child. However, there are certain behaviors to look out for that may signal concern for your child’s mental health. Throughout the article, we’ll discuss normal imaginary friend behaviors and the things that may warrant concern for your child.

Key takeaways:
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    Having an imaginary friend is quite common for children ages 3-13.
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    Most of the time, a child admits that their imaginary friend only exists in their make-believe world, not in the real world.
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    Having an imaginary friend can be a sign of a vividly imaginative child who is trying to understand the world better.
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    Be aware of warning signs surrounding your child’s imaginary friend, such as violent behavior or mood changes. If you notice any indications, it’s important to seek professional help as soon as possible.

Most of the time, having an imaginary childhood friend is normal. According to research, 65% of children will have an imaginary friend at some point in their life, starting as early as three, but up to 12 or 13 years of age. Older research stated that 28% of children ages 5-12 had an imaginary friend.

Having an imaginary friend is often a sign of having a lively imagination. However, sometimes children create these make-believe friends out of loneliness or as a coping skill. Additionally, there are times when a child’s imaginary friend develops dissociative behavior following a traumatic event or a series of traumatic events.

Benefits of having an imaginary friend

There are a variety of explanations for why your child may develop an imaginary friend. Many of these are health reasons that can help with development. Some of these include:

  • Managing their emotions
  • Having a companion for fantasy play when they’re feeling lonely or other children are not around
  • Developing problem-solving skills
  • Exploring ideas
  • Developing a vivid imagination

Most children admit that they made their friends up and are aware that their imaginary friend is just make-believe when asked by doctors and researchers. If your child plays with other children at school and has friends aside from their imaginary pal, there may not be cause for concern. It’s seldom that a child insists that their imaginary friend is real. Most children who have imaginary friends are well-adjusted, outgoing individuals with a better grasp of social relationships.

When to be concerned about your child’s imaginary friend

There are times when your child’s imaginary friend warrants concern. Some warning signs include symptoms of child psychosis (an extremely rare and difficult disorder to diagnose) or the result of dissociation caused by childhood trauma. It can also be indicative of poorly developed social skills or a cause for worry if:

  • Your child does not have other “real world” friends.
  • Your child shows no interest in making friends.
  • The imaginary friend is always present.
  • The imaginary friend is constantly talking to your child.
  • If the imaginary friend is mean, violent, or threatens your child.
  • If the imaginary friend tells your child to do something violent toward another person or themselves.
  • You notice sudden changes in your child’s behavior, such as mood or behavioral changes.
  • Your child’s ability to concentrate declines, along with school performance.
  • You notice a change in your child’s speech patterns.
  • Your child’s hygiene declines.
  • You have a strong family history of mental illness among close relatives.

Should you worry that your child’s imaginary friend is problematic and could be due to symptoms of psychosis, it may be time to seek professional help. If your child is hearing or seeing things that are not rooted in reality, schedule an appointment with your pediatrician or a child therapist. Some symptoms of childhood psychosis include:

  • Unexplained or persistent paranoia.
  • Drastic mood changes.
  • Hallucinations — auditory or visual.
  • Insisting that the imaginary friend is real.

It’s rare for a child to develop psychosis, but this tends to happen between the ages of 5-13. Occasionally (7.5% of the time), an imaginary childhood friend will linger into adulthood. As long as there are no problematic symptoms, as mentioned above, there is generally little reason for concern. Experts believe an imaginary friend brings benefits, such as coping with loneliness. However, data has been inconclusive, and more research is needed to arrive at a more concrete answer.

Setting healthy boundaries for your child’s imaginary friend

While accepting your child’s imaginary friend can be helpful if there is no cause for concern, it’s also important to set healthy boundaries. Some children can use this as a form of parental manipulation by testing limits and processing complex emotions. If a child insists that you can’t sit in your favorite seat, demands setting an extra place at the table, or makes their imaginary friend a scapegoat for when they get into trouble, make a mess, or do not obey your house rules, etc., it’s time to address the issue. You must set strong, healthy boundaries to prevent the situation from getting out of control. Your child must understand that their imaginary friend does not and cannot run the household. When your child tries to blame something on their imaginary friend, it’s important not to feed into this. To keep your child accountable, tell them that even though their imaginary friend caused the trouble or damage, it is their responsibility to clean up after them and face any consequences.

Most of the time, having an imaginary friend is just a short-lived phase. While it can be concerning at first, as long as there are no red flags, there is likely no cause for concern. Should anything change, it’s important to look into the situation from a professional’s lens. Ensure that your child understands that their friend lives only as part of their imagination and that there is nothing deeper going on. Should you be concerned about your child’s imaginary friend, it’s important to seek help from a licensed professional.

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