Q: Should I be alarmed that my 4-year-old daughter has an imaginary friend? Is this normal? If so, when should it stop by?
A: One of the most interesting things to observe in a preschool child is the development of fantasy and imagination. When a child plays with her imaginary friend, she is often learning or expanding language skills, social skills, creativity, and empathy, so it is certainly okay to encourage your child to continue this when she “introduces” you to her new friend. This is generally not a sign of loneliness or isolation. Generally, the only concerning finding is if she plays only with imaginary friends – at the exclusion of playing with other children. Given that imagination works both positively (friends) and negatively (fears), parents can be grateful any time the former, and not the latter, is manifesting itself. Parents can even utilize it to sample how their child views an upcoming event; for instance, you can ask your child how her imaginary friend feels about starting kindergarten.
Imaginary friends first appear as early as 3 years old and are usually on their way out the door when a child is about 6 years old. It is not necessarily a sign of a problem if it persists beyond that, however. Often times, a single imaginary friend may persist for up to six months, while other children will have a new imaginary friend daily. Children often include imaginary friends (either invisible or represented by an object) in all of their activities, including bedtime and mealtime. It is reasonable to set limits when children make requests on behalf of their imaginary friends. Many parents do not take issue with pouring an extra cup of milk at mealtime, but most would not want to set out an extra plate of food for this friend. Instead, expanding your child’s imaginary play to pretend she is sharing her own food can help deflect this.
Thus, it is quite normal for your child to have imaginary friends. Enjoy this unique opportunity to see how her mind works!
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By the way, if you are curious about other aspects of preschool emotions, it is worth visiting healthychildren.org and searching for “preschool emotional development.”
If you have a question about your child's health or happiness, ask Dr. Eichner or any of our experts by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brian Eichner is a general pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at Duke Children's Primary Care-Roxboro Street in Durham. He enjoys providing care for children who are healthy as well as those with complex medical conditions. Dr. Eichner also serves as the medical director of the Duke Pediatric Diagnostic Clinic. He and his wife have lived in the Triangle since 2006.