Not long ago, parents were often fearful or even ashamed when their young child had an imaginary friend. They worried that their little one was lonely, or ostracized, or behind in development. Turns out, just the opposite is true: kids with rich imaginations, including those who conjure up imaginary friends, are showing just how creative and smart they really are.
Imaginary Friends Build Language Skills
When children have an imaginary friend, they must supply all the conversation themselves—using their own words, and those of their imaginary companion. That double-duty discussion really boosts preschoolers’ language development, giving them lots of practice—with turn-taking conversation and with explanations. Think of how a child might say, “Toby wants to sit next to me at the table, and she only wants to use a purple plate.”
Having a pretend pal also helps kids develop something called “private speech.” Basically, chatter with imaginary friends eventually becomes inner speech, which isn’t spoken aloud but still helps organize a child’s thoughts. Kids who use it do better on planning their actions and even solving puzzles.
Imaginary Friends Build Social Skills
Kids who have imaginary companions don’t neglect real-life friends. In fact, they tend to be more sociable and outgoing than those who don’t have imaginary buddies. This might be because they are better at seeing things from another person’s point of view and they can practice social interactions.
When kids have an imaginary friend, they can even practice problem-solving: What would happen if Toby wanted the purple plate but so did her real-life friend and there was only one plate available? Time for some negotiation!
Imaginary Friends Build Creativity
A child with an imaginary friend never has to play alone. And he doesn’t need a character on a screen to tell him what to do—he figures it all out on his own. All that pretending and making up stories is good for his brain, helping him become more creative every day.
Imaginary Friends Build Emotional Strength
Many young children use their imaginary friends to help them handle difficult situations, whether that means encountering a scary dog, moving to a new house, or losing someone who’s important to them. They find reassurance in their pretend friends, who are always by their side and may have attributes young children wish they had (such as fearlessness, strength, or even fantastical powers like knowing how to fly).
An imaginary friend might also help a child work through her own struggles with behavior. If her imaginary friend does something naughty, what happens? The child can test the waters and learn to regulate her own behavior.
Not every preschooler has an imaginary friend, but about 65 percent of kids seven and under do. Some of these are invisible, and others are based on toys. If one of these pals lives in your house, great! But if your child is among the 35 percent who don’t have an imaginary companion, don’t worry. Provide him with plenty of opportunities for free and creative play, and he’ll do the rest.