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Imaginary friends in children: are these fantasies normal?

Imaginary friends in children: are these fantasies normal?

May 11, 2024

The ability to socialize and maintain positive contacts beyond the merely familiar, establishing links with people in our environment and sharing situations, moments and positive experiences with them is fundamental for our full development.

Friendships are going to be very important throughout life, but having someone with characteristics similar to their own with whom to share and experience is especially relevant during childhood and adolescence. And in many cases, some children come to make friends that do not really exist in the real world but are of great importance to them: we are talking about imaginary friends . It is about this concept that we are going to talk about throughout this article.


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What is an imaginary friend?

An imaginary friend is considered to be that invisible and non-existent character in reality that is considered as real or partially real by a child with whom he plays to interact frequently and directly and who is named and recognized in front of other people. The interaction and consideration of the existence of this being by the child may have a variable duration. Although we have spoken of nonexistent beings, sometimes the imaginary friend is an object or element to which the child grants the ability to be alive or interact, like a doll.


The creation and maintenance of imaginary friends usually occurs in young children , between two and eight years. The friend in question usually has a protective or playful function, being his own presence of situations in which the child is playing or feels fear. The character in question can be a child like him or her or animate beings, with animal or even fantastic characteristics. Usually the friend begins to be forgotten or disappear when the child begins to have a more fluid and positive contact with children and make friends, although it may take some time to disappear.

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Explanations for this phenomenon in childhood

The creation of imaginary friends by children has been an aspect investigated with great interest throughout history, there are different approaches to this. Initially there was the idea that it was treated and valued as the expression of a clinical problem, although research has shown that with exceptions this is not the case.


Initially it was considered that imaginary friends were the expression of affective problems linked to shortages such as lack of affection on the part of the parents, loneliness or lack of people of the same maturational level or as a compensation mechanism for what the children consider their weaknesses. Although in some cases this may be the case, especially in abandoned children or those who have suffered some trauma, it has been observed that this phenomenon can appear in any kind of context.

Authors such as Jean Piaget, known for his studies on child development and the phases of acquisition of different skills and mental abilities from a cognitive perspective, interpreted the presence of imaginary friends as an elaboration of the child as an attempt to explain reality that he was not able to understand, having difficulties to separate the real from the imaginary in the typical age of appearance of this phenomenon (between 3-6 years). However children yes they are able to separate fictional reality at these ages , often knowing that their imaginary friends are not perceptible to anyone other than them or even that they are the product of fantasy.

Another more recent theory values ​​that imaginary friends are simulations of real beings that children use to practice real interaction situations and that serve to improve their understanding of the theory of mind (assume and understand that others have opinions, thoughts and perspectives different from their own).

Is it something pathological?

Although it does not occur in all children, the presence of imaginary friends is something that generally is accepted as something normal that will happen over time. But nevertheless, many parents show great concern when it happens to their children before the possibility of being witnessing some type of alteration or mental pathology.

This concern has some sense, since the truth is that the concept of imaginary friends assumes the existence of some characteristics that might resemble those of a hallucination or a delirium (it is perceived and considered real the existence of a being that does not exist beyond of the subject's own mind, which remains in time).

But nevertheless, in the vast majority of cases it is not a pathological event but a normative one , being extremely frequent (although there is no consensus, some studies indicate that even about half of children could have them) and that it usually happens in a stage of life when magical thinking is very active and there is great creativity

Also, the friend in question can play a role in children's development : relieve company needs, project your ideal self or your own self-image, practice for real interactions, rehearse your theory of mind and the ability to understand the other, or release anxiety generating a fictitious world in which you can abstract from various problems.

In fact, some studies even seem to indicate that the generation of imaginary friends (provided that it does not become the expression of affective deficiencies or generates an active withdrawal from real contact with others) far from being pathological can even allow the development of different skills, improving their future social competence, apathy, abstraction and creativity.

What to do?

Many parents may wonder how to act in the presence of imaginary friends in their children , being a normal and lawful concern. But as a rule, having imaginary friends is not something that requires treatment.

It is not advisable to punish, deny or ignore the existence of the imaginary friend, although it is important to assess the type of friend or personality he has. Nor try to force the child to do activities over-occupying his time to avoid the existence of this friend. It could also be useful to try to favor (without it becoming a forced and insistent practice that generates anxiety to the child) the approach to situations where you can interact with other children.

The subject should be treated with respect. We must bear in mind that it may be a projection of our son's fears or even of a way to connect with the world and communicate with you , with which it may be relevant to hear when it appears and the opinions that the child says that his friend has about the world.

Less common aspects that can generate a response and should not be allowed is the fact that the imaginary friend is used as a justification or scapegoat for the aversive acts themselves.

It can also be more worrying if you notice that the child prefers to relate to his invisible friend than to the rest of the world and this leads to isolation , or that the personality of the friend is extremely violent or destructive. While there are cases in which imaginary friends are maintained until adolescence, it is not very common and we should assess that the child may be having some kind of problem.

Bibliographic references:

  • Benavides Delgado, J. (2007). The Creation of Imaginary Friends in Children: A Clinical Problem ?. Psychological Thesis [online] Available at: //www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa?id=139012670006.
  • Taylor, M. (1999). Imaginary companions and the children who create them. Oxford: Oxford.

Our Secret Fantasies (May 2024).


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