As a pediatrician, listening to children share creative stories, involving real and make-believe friends, makes every day unique and entertaining.
Conversations with younger patients are as likely to involve comments like, “Look how much you’ve grown since your last visit!” as, “I did not realize that you have a new pet dinosaur!”
Children love sharing details about their imaginary pals. Understandably, though, parents wonder how “normal” imaginary friendships are and whether they may signal mental-health problems.
Rest assured, most imaginary friendships during childhood are considered normal. In fact, they can help children practice interacting with others and their environment. But looking out for a few red flags can help identify when it may be time to talk to your pediatrician about your concerns.
Social-emotional development in children
Children learn to interact with the world around them shortly after birth.
In infants, this may start with eye contact with a parent while feeding. They may get quiet when you speak to them or return your smile with one of their own. They begin to piece together the world around them and how different behaviors help them interact with it.
By around age 2, children love to play alongside other kids. They may especially like to re-enact activities they may see adults doing, like talking on the phone or vacuuming. Their imagination blossoms, often sparking an interest in playing dress-up and acting out everyday social interactions with toy figures and puppets.
By 3 years old, children link their imagination and cooperative play skills together. They often create stories with richly detailed scenes involving playmates, family members, pets and imaginary friends.
At age 4 or 5, a child’s growing imagination and creativity can blur lines between their real and invented worlds. At this age, even kid-friendly cartoons and stories can cause nightmares, because everything feels so real to them.
As children mature and gain more social skills, they slowly move away from their imaginary world that provided comfort and familiarity as they learn about the real one.
Having imaginary friendships does not mean that your child is lonely. Children often use imaginary friendships as a haven to try out their social skills, group dynamics and communication strategies. It often helps them see their world from other perspectives and gain empathy.
By creating an imaginary friend, they have to understand the perspective of others in the scenarios they are acting out.
Imaginary friendships should be comforting and controllable. Children can usually make their imaginary friends “go away” when they are done playing.
Young children have such rich imaginary lives, and they are so generous in sharing them with you. Enjoy this special stage in their development, but don’t hesitate to talk with your child’s doctor if you have concerns.
When to raise concerns
In general, imaginary friendships are a normal part of social development and will fade away over time, but it is important to discuss any concerns you have with your pediatrician, particularly if:
- You have other developmental concerns about your child, especially involving speech, talking patterns or social interactions.
- The imaginary friends never go away or are “always talking.”
- Imaginary friends are threatening or encouraging your child to use violence toward themselves or others.
- You notice sudden changes in your child’s social interactions, personal hygiene practices, speech patterns or concentration ability.
- There is a strong family history of mental illness, especially in close relatives.
Dr. Datta Munshi is a community pediatrician focusing on pediatric behavioral health. She serves on the Georgia AAP School Health Committee and AAP Mental Health in Schools Project.