Remember Snuffleupagus? A Sesame Street favorite, “Snuffy” was Big Bird’s stalwart imaginary friend for years before he was finally revealed as “real” to the show’s grown-ups.
Our own imaginary friends may not have been quite so shaggy or original, but to us, they were just as real and just as important. Now long-forgotten, those companions helped us through some of our biggest little-kid challenges.
Today, many kids today are finding the same comfort and support. Studies show that 25% of preschoolers and 65% of early elementary school kids have imaginary companions. Even though research shows it’s totally normal for a kid to have one, some parents worry about these fun figments, asking questions like:
Why does my kid have an imaginary friend?
Is it normal to have imaginary friends at age eight? 12? 15?
Are there are any benefits that come from having an imaginary friend?
In HelloJoey’s kit "The Mysteries of Make Believe Play," we look at all the different ways kids express and explore through play – including creating imaginary friends. We also talk to the experts to explain the function of these imaginary companions and how they help kids develop real-world skills through make believe.
The function of imaginary companions
There are several reasons a child might conjure up an invisible pal. Some kids have imaginary friends who always seem to be getting in trouble or who appear any time the child is asked to do something they don’t want to do.
The imaginary troublemaker gives your kid a safe way to challenge authority. Even if they wind up doing what you’ve asked, your child can share their imaginary friend’s complaints or protests without any risk of getting in trouble themselves. That imaginary troublemaker also has the ability to do all the crazy stuff your child wishes they could (but of course, would never).
Another reason kids have imaginary friends is so they have someone to blame when mistakes happen. It’s normal for kids to be scared to confess when they’ve broken a lamp or done something else they know will make their parents angry. After all, no kid wants to get in trouble. Imaginary companions who take the blame can make it easier for kids to deal with mistakes and can help kids “ease in” to taking responsibility when those mistakes happen.
How imaginary friends evolve
While kids may stop talking about their imaginary friends after elementary school, it’s not unusual for children to continue to have them in middle school – and sometimes even in high school.
Kids between 12 and 17 probably don’t share this secret with their friends, but research has found that they do give imaginary friends shape in diaries.
Even when kids no longer rely on their imaginary friends, that creative companionship doesn’t just go away. It shows up when kids engage in creative writing, watch movies, read books, invent imaginary worlds with their friends. It continues to enrich their lives and add to their real-world friendships as they move forward into adulthood.
While some parents consider imaginary buddies a normal part of childhood, others wonder why kids have imaginary friends – or worry that a child who creates an imaginary friend is lonely. However, studies show that those kids who are particularly prone to having imaginary companions have been show to be socially-competent and creative and to have good coping abilities.
“When children develop imaginary friends, it helps their imagination,” explains Psychologist Dr. Ruth Burtman, “and it helps them develop their ways of understanding others.”
Knowing how to deal with an imaginary friend – and all the other inventive make-believe ideas your kid comes up with – can be confusing or even overwhelming. However, by embracing imaginative play, you can help your child:
learn prosocial behaviors like sharing and negotiating.
develop empathy and problem-solving skills.
work through emotions they don’t know how to express.
form a stronger bond and attachment to you .
Want to learn more about “Make Believe?” Start your path to a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day. Check out the HelloJoey app.