Imaginary friends: When to play along and when to be concerned –

Imaginary friends aren’t uncommon and can be perfectly normal in childhood; however, there are times to be concerned. Here’s what experts say.
When a child has an imaginary friend, is it cute? A little creepy? Or downright concerning? No matter what you think of them, fact is, for some kids, imaginary friends are a part of childhood. But what’s a parent or caregiver to do when their kiddo is having a full-on conversation with, well, nobody? Pull up a chair and get their child’s “friend” a cup of tea? Or freak out?
According to Dr. Eleanor Lastrapes, a psychiatrist at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, the latter reaction shouldn’t be knee-jerk, as having imaginary friends is “not abnormal” in childhood.
“Based on research done in developmental psychology, up to 65% of children have an imaginary companion (IC) at some point prior to the age of 7,” she says. “Researchers speculate the child’s relationship with their IC allows them to practice social skills that may later prove to be adaptive. Though they do not get real-time immediate feedback like they would with another child, having an IC is a risk-free way for children to experiment and negotiate social roles that they may not have the freedom to do in real relationships.” 
In other words: Imaginary friends aren’t only normal; they can actually be a good thing. Whether you’re wondering how to respond or wondering if your child’s relationship with their IC is cause for concern, here’s what experts have to say about imaginary friends.
Just as some kids are partial to Pokemon, while others are sports nuts, the same holds true for imaginary friends — ultimately, it boils down to the fact that every child is different, says Elaine Tan, a licensed mental health counselor at The Howard Phillips Center for Children & Families at Orlando Health. 
“Some kids are just more imaginative, creative or emotional than others,” Tan explains. “Every child develops in their own way, which is why some kids have imaginary friends and others do not.” 
Getting more specific, Tan notes, some kids may develop an imaginary friend “as a way to help them enhance their creative play or cope with feelings of boredom or loneliness.” 
Jaclyn Gulotta, a licensed mental health counselor in Longwood, Florida, adds that some kids have imaginary friends to “create a support system or outlet for themselves.” 
“A child may not even understand why they have created this ‘person,’ as they’re typically young,” Gulotta continues. “If a child feels alone or bored, they may create this imaginary friend to spend time with. Some children may not feel the need to have this type of outlet as they are fulfilled with the people and situations around them.” 
Having an imaginary friend is normal — in fact, it can even “support social and emotional development,” says Tan. 
“It’s not abnormal for a child to have an imaginary friend, as it’s part of creative play,” Tan explains. “Just think of it like when kids play mommy/daddy/teacher or they pretend they are cooking or taking care of babies. It is part of their development, and it confirms that their brains are working and developing.”
Typically, imaginary friends start when children have developed language skills and independent play, which, Tan notes, is “around 3 years old.” She continues: “It will end or become less prevalent as children age, on a similar timeline to when pretend play ends.”  
That being said, Lastrapes notes that the length of time a child may have an imaginary friend “varies widely, from one month to several years.” 
“There is no specific time frame a child should outgrow an imaginary companion,” she adds. “Generally speaking, most children’s imaginary companions tend to have served their function by the time the child is 8 or 9 years old.”
While each family is different, here are a few ways experts recommend handling imaginary friends. 
“Based on my own clinical experience, I recommend parents follow the lead of the child,” Lastrapes says. “If the child would like their parents to play along, doing so could help the child feel more confident regarding the social skills they are practicing. Adversely, if a child is still experimenting with social roles, they may feel uncomfortable if their parent engages in their play. Either way your child indicates they would like you to navigate their IC is valid.”   
“If the imaginary friend does not pose a threat or safety concern, parents can just play along,” says Tan. “In fact, it’s good to play along, as parents and caregivers can monitor if the imaginary friend is just part of the child’s creative mind or something of a concern.” (More on this shortly.)  
Playing along can also promote communication between child and parent, Tan continues. “For example, children may find it easier to talk about something that is upsetting them through the imaginary friend. The parent can listen to how the imaginary friend is feeling, then transition to asking the child how they are feeling about the concern.”
Just because your child’s friend isn’t real, doesn’t mean they should have carte blanche to treat them however they want or do whatever they want with them (they’re practicing social skills, remember?).
“As in any play, the parent or caregiver can help the child learn limits and boundaries and model social and problem-solving skills between the child and the imaginary friend, as a parent would during a real playdate,” Tan says. “If a child wants to blame misbehavior on the imaginary friend, the parent would remind the child that they are responsible for their own behavior and define the expected behavior and consequences for following or not following the expected behavior.”  
While imaginary friends are typically harmless, there are times when they may warrant concern. 
“One way to differentiate an imaginary friend from psychosis is that the child should be able to continue functioning well in their environment and relationships even if they have an IC,” Lastrapes says.
“This differs from a child with psychosis who will often appear confused/agitated, display disorganized speech, thinking, emotional reactions or behavior,” she adds. “If you have any reason to suspect your child is suffering with hallucinations, the child needs to be evaluated immediately by a health professional in the emergency department.”
Here are other four causes for concern around imaginary playmates, according to Tan:
Tan’s example: “The imaginary friend is appearing in the middle of the night frequently and is causing the child severe anxiety, nightmares, bedwetting or abnormal fears, and a change or worsening of behaviors.”  
Tan’s example: “Is the child having consistent, persistent and abnormal conversations with this imaginary friend that is alarming and causing a parent great concern?”
Tan’s example: “Is the imaginary friend asking the child to do inappropriate or unsafe things, and the child is not responding to the redirection of the parent? If so, it would be best to seek professional help.” 
Tan’s example: “If the child’s interactions with the imaginary friend replace or hinder engagement in social activities and development of real friendships, that would be a concern,” she says. “The child may need help to transition from the imaginary friend to other social interactions. The parent or caregiver can help with this by modeling how to set boundaries. Say: ‘Katie has invited you to a playdate today. Please let Imaginary Friend know we will see her later, as we have something scheduled.’” 
Even if your child isn’t presenting any of these behaviors, when in doubt, never hesitate to seek professional help.
“If parents are worried, they should check in with their children and ask about their imaginary friends,” says Gulotta. “This will help to make sure the child is not engaging in unhealthy or unsafe behaviors with their imaginary friend. However, if a parent believes the child is becoming dependent on their imaginary friend and unable to cope without them, they should step in and seek professional help.”
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