Imaginary Friends

Parents of toddlers and pre-schoolers often ask me if it’s all right for their child to be speaking to an imaginary friend. I won’t usually answer until Dr. Check-up, my imaginary pediatrician friend gives me the advice I need to answer their question, and fortunately he recently did, so here are my responses.

Imaginary friends are a normal part of a child’s development starting when a child is 2 ½ to 3 and usually ending by the time a child turns 6 years of age. More than 2/3 of children will have an imaginary friend at some time. These friends can have names, personalities, and may even be taking up space in your child’s bed so you need to be careful or you may sit on them.

Having one is not a sign of loneliness, poor social skills or other serious problems. Benefits include:

• Being a wonderful way to stimulate creativity and imagination

• Helping children figure out the difference between right and wrong when they are not quite ready to assume complete responsibility for their actions

• Giving insight into what your child is feeling. For instance, they might comfort their imaginary friend about getting a shot if your child is about to visit the doctor for an immunization.

On the other hand, don’t let the imaginary friend be your child’s only companion and don’t let them shift the blame all the time to the friend.

What should you do if your child does develop an imaginary friend? My best advice is not to interfere much and let their imagination be cultivated by the experience. Play along if your child asks you to talk to their friend, as you would if they asked you to play with their dolls or cars.

The good news is these imaginary friends will go away as your child gets a better handle on what is fantasy and what is reality. As they meet other real friends at school, the imaginary ones just quietly disappear.

By giving your child adequate attention each day, and stimulating their creativity through games and art and play with other children, children will find they don’t have to resort to imaginary friends to use their imagination.

When should you worry? If your child won’t play with anyone else or seems very withdrawn from interacting with other real people, then talk to your child’s doctor because counseling may be needed - but this is rare.

Hopefully, you’ll find tips like these to be more helpful than you can imagine when it comes to dealing with your child’s - and maybe even your own - imaginary friends.

Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. You can also catch "First with Kids" weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and on WCAX-TV Channel 3. Visit the First with Kids video archives at www.fletcherallen.org/firstwithkids