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The importance of imaginary friends for young children

Up to 65% of children below the age of 7 have an imaginary friend at some point. Imaginary friends can be invisible or can be embodied in an object, for example a stuffed animal or a doll. There is no prototypical imaginary friend; these creations come in all sizes, shapes and forms. The child treats his or her friend as real. Does your child have an imaginary friend? In this article I will share research-based insights about the importance of imaginary friends. You can also watch the related YouTube video below.

 Why do children have imaginary friends?

It is possible that young children create an imaginary friend, because it provides them with a social relationship partner. While playing with their imaginary friend, children can practice events that might happen in real life. The play may be similar to true play with other kids. Because of the imagined context, it is a risk-free way for children to practice their social skills and experience a range of positive and negative emotions. For example, children can explore what might happen during a conflict with their imaginary friend, without having to be afraid for the possible negative consequences.

 Why are imaginary friends important?

The purpose of imaginary friends seems primarily social. Playing with imaginary friends can be important for children’s development. Children can practice skills that may be useful for better functioning:

  • Social competence: playing with imaginary friends can help children to practice social skills, for example cooperation and negotiation.
  • Relational: children are able to make sense of different structures of relationships and manage their real relationships.
  • Emotion regulation: children can practice emotion regulation as they may experience a range of positive and negative emotions in a safe imagined context.

 Tips

  • Keep in mind that young children are likely to have an imaginary friend. It’s part of normal child development.
  • Imaginary friends provide a simulation of a social relationship, in which children can practice social skills and experiences in a risk-free way. You can ask questions about your child’s imaginary friend to learn more about your child’s interests, fears or concerns.

 More information

Gleason, T. R. (2017). The psychological significance of play with imaginary companions in early childhood. Learning & behavior, 45(4), 432-440.

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