Imaginary Friends: What's a Parent to Do?

Yesterday I asked our 2 year old to head to the door so we could leave.
Her response, "I can't mommy, Maddie doesn't have her coat yet."

I wasn't sure what I heard, I didn't know she had a friend named Maddie. So I asked her to say it again.
"Maddie doesn't have her coat yet." she said.

"Oh, okay, well, lets get her coat so we can go." I responded.

Our daughter relayed the message to Maddie, and then walked to the car, hand in hand with her imaginary friend.

Although these playmates are new to our youngest daughter, they are not new to our house. Both our son and other daughter have shared their imaginary friends with us for a time. They have traveled with us, eaten with us, and read plenty of stories with us.

Imaginary playmates are very common. It is usually between the ages of 2 and 3 that they make their first appearance. Usually by the age of 5 or 6, the friends are no longer around. Although they won't admit it, most kids know that their friends are not real.

Kids use imaginary friends for companionship, imaginative play and support. 

Imaginary friends can be scary for parents. We are afraid that something is wrong with our kids or that they won't ever have real friends. Worry no more.
Research shows us that is not the case. Kids who have imaginary friends have plenty of real friends. They are creative, independent, cooperative with teachers and playmates and are very sociable. They can distinguish between real and pretend just as well as other children.

Why Imaginary Friends?
Think about what it must be like to be a toddler. Everyone always telling you what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. Older siblings and friends want your toys and you are always competing for attention. Who wouldn't want a friend who never takes your toys, does what you say, and never steals your attention?
Imaginary friends are the ideal companion.

They also serve as...
A protector (when they are scared)
A scapegoat (when they need someone to blame something on)
An outlet (to express emotions)

As parents, what should we do when imaginary friends show up?

1. Welcome and accept imaginary friends.
There is no need to continually point out to our children that their friends are not real. Be welcoming and go along with your children's requests for his/her friend. It is okay to pretend to pour the extra bowl of cereal. Don't really pour the extra bowl. The key: keep it in the context of pretend. Just like if the two of you were playing dolls or superheros.

2. Don't squelch the imagination.
It is really important for our kids to develop their imaginations. They will need it for the rest of their lives. Don't make fun of their imaginary friends or make them feel dumb for having them. Don't make their "friends" stay home when you go out. This type of response from parents can make children sink deeper into the pretend world. It can also make them feel silly, or wrong and shy away from imagining all together.

3. Don't initiate.
As parents, don't initiate. Don't ask if the imaginary friend is going to go to the store with you. Wait until your child initiates and then play along.

4. Don't let your child use her friend as an escape goat.
It is really important to not let your child blame their imaginary friend for wrong doings and get away with it. Children still need to be accountable for their actions and parents need to enforce the consequences.
When your child blames the mess on their "friend" don't dismiss it and clean it up yourself. Instead, tell your child that because they are friends, they can help pick up the mess. If they refuse, the imaginary game is over and you need to insist they take care of the mess.

5. Don't use the friend.
Don't use the imaginary friend to get your child to do what you want. It can come back to bite you. Saying that "Maddie wants you to eat your carrots." Or, "Maddie wishes that you would be nice to your sister." Some kids might play along just fine, but other kids might feel like you are taking over and they have lost control of their "friend."

6. Provide opportunities for your child to use their imagination.
Read books to your child. Encourage them to imagine what it is like to be the characters in the book. Also invite them to play pretend. Play games, play with dolls and superheros. Encourage playing dress up and acting like cooks, or cowboys, or any other character they are interested in. Play with them so they learn how to role play and make believe.

7. Spend plenty of time with your child.
Sometimes, kids make up friends because they aren't getting enough attention from their parents. Don't let the imaginary friend be a substitute for real parental attention or real friends. If you sense that is the case, evaluate the time you are spending with your child. Make a conscious effort to spend more valuable time playing and interacting with your child.

8. Provide an opportunity to express feelings.  
Often, kids don't know how to act in social situations, or how to communicate how they feel, so they use their imaginary friend to express those feelings, and to test the reactions of others as they act. As parents, if you recognize this happening, invite your child to talk about how they feel to you. Open the lines of communication.

9. Learn from the experience.
Imaginary friends can give valuable insight into how your child really feels. If the imaginary friend is hungry, it could mean your child is hungry. If the imaginary friend is scared of the dark and doesn't want to go to bed, it could mean your child is afraid of the dark. Listen to what your child's imaginary friend is saying and be open to the insights it might provide.

Having an imaginary friend is very normal. Unless your child is becoming withdrawn, and refusing to interact with others, you can usually rest assured that after a little time, the "friend" will be dismissed.

Until then, be open and kind to your families new friend. On the bright side, it's another child without going through labor.



  1. My son has imaginary friends in the form of horses, horsies. At first this didn't bother me, but the other day he broke something or made a mess ( I don't even remember what it was) and said the horses made him do it. Well, I wasn't going to play along with that. I have to admit it made me slightly worried as to what he might blame on his horses next...

  2. My kids have never had imaginary friends, but I was watching a little girl once who did, and she insisted that the "friend" say the blessing on lunch. I was at a total loss.

  3. Almost a year ago my daughter had a slight variation on imaginary friends. She would often tell us about a frog sitting by the door in her room that she had to say goodnight to before going to bed. However, one day she ran toward me screaming hysterically and jumped on me saying the frog was coming to get here. She did this several times for a three day period and then stopped. I guess the frog went back to normal after that because there were no more screaming episodes. Is that normal, too?

    She also named her hands "Thomas" and "Green Train" for a while. They would help her do things, and it was super entertaining.

  4. We are the proud owners of Buster the Ghost Dog. He is the very best pet ever.

  5. Laura I am glad you posted that. My daughter has named her hands and talks to them all the time. I thought it was a little weird, but I try not to stop her from pretending. Knowing other kids do that makes me feel better for some reason. Great post, Heather. You gave some good pointers here that I need to follow. I have tried to control my youngest daughter's game with her imaginary kitty, and that needs to stop because like you said, I can see it starting to be less fun for her, and I agree that imagination is super important or young children to develop.


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