Imaginary Friends

QUESTION

Dear Mr. Dad,

My three-year-old daughter has an imaginary friend named Maggie. She talks to her all the time, draws with her, and "reads" her favorite books to her. I even have to set an extra place at the dinner table for Maggie or my daughter won't eat. Is this okay or should I be concerned about my daughter's sanity?

ANSWER

Having imaginary playmates is a pretty normal part of growing up -- especially in the toddler years -- and they serve several important functions:

  • They can be wonderful companions for pretend play, which is an important way to stimulate creativity and imagination. Having an invisible friend can make those long trips to the moon or back in time a little less lonely.
  • They can act as a child's trusted confidant when there's no one else to tell their secrets to. Even small children have issues that are too private to tell us.
  • They can help kids figure out the difference between right and wrong. Kids sometimes have a tough time stopping themselves from doing things they know are wrong. Blaming the imaginary friend for eating cookies before dinner is often a sign that the child understands right vs. wrong distinctions but isn't quite ready to assume complete responsibility for her actions.
  • They can give you some valuable insights into your child's feelings. Listening to your child bravely comfort an invisible friend who's about to get a shot may be a clue that your child is more afraid than she's letting on.

While it's generally perfectly fine to humor your child and go along with her claims about the existence of an imaginary friend, there are a few ground rules:

  • Don't let the "friend" be your child's only companion. Kids need to socialize with others their own ages. If your child seems to have no other friends or has no interest in being with her peers, talk to your pediatrician.
  • Don't let your child shift responsibility for everything bad to the friend. Saying that the friend is the one responsible for a nighttime accident is okay. Blaming the friend for a string of bank robberies isn't.
  • Treat the friend with respect. This means remembering his name, greeting him when you meet, and apologizing when you sit on him.
  • Don't use the friend to manipulate your child. That mean no comments like "Maggie finished her dinner, why don't you finish yours?"

Most kids lose their imaginary friends between their third and fifth birthdays. Sometimes the friends are forgotten, sometimes they're sent on a distant -- and permanent -- trip, and other times they "die" in a horrible accident.
-- "Mr. Dad"

Armin Brott

A nationally recognized parenting expert, Armin Brott is the bestselling author of The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips and Advice for Dads-To-Be, The New Father: A Dad's Guide to the First Year, Fathering Your Toddler, The Military Father: A Hands-on Guide for Deployed Dads, and four other books on fatherhood. He has written on parenting, fatherhood, and health for the New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and dozens of other periodicals. He also hosts "Positive Parenting," which airs on a dozen stations in the US and worldwide on the American Forces Network. Armin lives with his family in Oakland, California. You may visit his website at mrdad.com to learn more.