Should you worry about your child's imaginary friend?

My three-year-old son now has an "imaginary friend." He plays with his friend and has "talks" with him. So far we see nothing negative about him having this friend but we still worry. Is this a normal stage or should we seek help?

Question:

Many young children develop "imaginary friends." For some, a stuffed toy or doll personifies the imaginary friend. For others, the friend is completely invisible to the rest of the world. Some studies have indicated that children who have imaginary friends tend to be "bright," and certainly we know they are creative and imaginative.

To young children, these imaginary friends are quite real. They may insist that their friend is served at the table, buckled into the car seat and given a turn to speak in family conversations. Usually the imaginary friend has a name of the child’s own creating. The name may be a made-up name or a familiar name. Imaginary friends may last for awhile. They are most typical for children between the ages of three and six. Sometimes the imaginary friend acts as a child’s alter-ego, taking the blame for the toys that didn’t get picked up or saying "bad words." Sometimes the friend is just a wonderful playmate.

Pretend play is vital to children’s development. Imaginary friends are an extension of pretend play, which is a normal, healthy, important part of a young child’s development. Pretend play gives children a chance to learn about roles, relationships, power, and control. Pretend play also gives children a chance to work through the multitude of feelings they experience daily. Because adults make most of the decisions about children’s lives, children are always looking for ways to gain some control and to deal with their feelings of helplessness. When a child goes to the doctor, she doesn’t get to decide to go, if she is going to get a shot, an examination , or medicine. When she comes home and "becomes" the doctor, she is in charge of the decisions and can give her imaginary friend as many shots as she wants. She and her imaginary friend could even devise a way to escape the doctor’s office altogether. Children often use pretend play to become the person in charge. A child who resists naps and nighttime routines may spend all day putting his teddy down for a nap. These imaginary play outlets help children learn to cope with their lives.

Pretend play usually starts when children are two, or older. Up until about five years old, the line between fantasy and reality is fuzzy. For young children, their pretend play is very real. If adults feel concerned, they can offer words to define the difference ("That sounds like a wonderful, pretend story about the circus elephants coming to your preschool.") But most often, the fantasies are harmless and children will naturally grow into an understanding of the difference between reality and fantasy.

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