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Why Your Child Having an Imaginary Friend Is Actually a Really Great Thing

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By Katharine Stahl, PopSugar

My 7-year-old daughter recently revealed to me that, for years, she had an imaginary friend: a bunny named Bebe. Apparently, Bebe returned to the make-believe world shortly after my daughter entered kindergarten, but she still remembers her fondly. Whether the special bond she had with her made-up bunny is true or not (my kid has been known to tell a tall tale or two), I'll probably never really know, but the concept tracks with the creative, imaginative girl of mine I know, love, and am often surprised by.

Imaginary friends might seem silly and even a little embarrassing if they regularly make appearances in public, but they're more common than you might realize. Research from the University of Oregon has shown that more than half of kids will have an imaginary friend at some point in their lives. They're also definitely more positive than the reputation they've received. If your child has announced that their new best friend is the kind that only they can see, here's what you need to know.


Imaginary Friends Are Supercommon

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According to Marjorie Taylor of the Imagination Research Lab at the University of Oregon and author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them, somewhere between 37 and 65 percent of children have imaginary friends, depending on whether or not you include those based on toys (think Winnie the Pooh). In other words, your kid is far from alone in creating an imagined friendship.


Why Do Kids Invent Imaginary Friends?

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Research has shown that the number one reason kids create imaginary friends is simple: fun! While the stereotype is that kids might need an invisible companion to help them cope with emotional distress, loneliness, or social discomfort, in reality, most kids with imaginary friends tend to be even more social and outgoing than their peers who don't have imaginary companions. Other reasons kids create imaginary friends: as a way to engage in imaginative play (kind of like playing with dolls or action figures), to counter boredom, to self-soothe during a transition period, and to practice social skills in a controlled environment.


Should Parents Be Worried About Imaginary Friends?

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Absolutely not, according to the vast majority of research. Even if your kid's imaginary friend is hard for you to process (like a ghost, angel, or monster), the experience of having that friend is almost always a positive one for your child. Most kids who have imaginary companions are totally aware that they're engaging in pretend play (i.e. they don't really think their invisible buddy is real) and are gaining valuable social and personal skills from their interactions, while showing off their creativity.


How Should Parents Respond to Imaginary Friends?

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Use them as a tool! Engaging with your child about their imaginary friend can be a great way to get them to open up about experiences they might otherwise be reluctant to share and to talk about feelings they aren't otherwise ready to communicate. Your kid might not want to admit to having a tough day at school or being nervous about meeting a new baby brother, but he might be open to talking about how his invisible friend is reacting to both.

While the general rule of thumb is to accept your child's imaginary companion and incorporate them into your family life, it's fine to challenge your kid if their friend becomes disruptive (i.e. demanding to sit in their sister's car seat or order their own pricey meal at a restaurant) or if they're using their faux friend to take the blame for their own actions. No matter who made the mess, your child is still responsible for helping to clean it up.


How Long Should an Invisible Friend Last?

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Research has shown that it's as common for school-age children at 6 and 7 to have imaginary friends as it is for preschoolers to have them. There's no general set age when your child should give up their imaginary companions. Older children are more aware of social judgments and therefore less likely to be open about their fantasy friends, but many still engage in role playing using created companions, and that's a healthy, developmentally normal thing. After all, many adults have rich fantasy lives; why wouldn't our children?

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