Your Child's Imaginary Friend ... What It Means

You're about to sit down on the couch next to your 4-year-old and she yells, "Don't sit there! You'll crush Gertrude!"

Oops. You should have known better. "Gertrude" goes everywhere your daughter goes.

If your child starts hanging around with an imaginary friend, enjoy the company. "This is like a little window to how they see things," says Suzanne Johnson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Florida State University. It's often part of a child's development and usually happens between ages 3 and 6.

Imaginary friends range from animals to miniature people to objects, such as a favorite blanket. They're buddies for lonely children. And they have unique qualities.

Children with imaginary friends are learning language skills, social skills, creativity, and empathy for real people, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

If your child spills her milk and blames her imaginary friend, don't make a big deal out of it but ask her to help clean it up, the AAP says. Tell her you know it's hard for her to admit it, but you know it was she, not her friend, who spilled the milk.

It's all right to encourage these "relationships," as long as things don't go too far. An extra glass of milk for the friend is OK, but not an entire meal, the AAP says. Tell children they can pretend to feed their friend a hamburger.

The only cause for worry is if it becomes apparent children are relying on their imaginary friends exclusively and don't play with real children, the AAP says. In that case, ask your doctor for advice. Usually by age 6 or 7, the imaginary friend will "disappear" just as quietly as he or she "appeared." Till then, enjoy this opportunity to see your child's imagination at work.


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