Whether your 4-year-old’s imaginary friend is new or a holdover from earlier years, it’s normal for you to worry that she hasn’t outgrown the habit as she nears school age. It’s also normal for a 4-year-old to have an imaginary friend. Research conducted in 2004 with preschoolers found that 65 percent of children 7 years of age and younger will have imaginary friends, according to the American Psychological Academy. Children have reasons for creating imaginary friends and they get something from the experience.
Reasons for an Imaginary Friend
Children usually begin to create imaginary friends around 3 years of age, so your 4-year-old is right on schedule. Children know they are pretending and the friends are not real. Although most have imaginary friends for fun, some children create the friends to safely work through difficult emotions or situations. A child might create an imaginary friend when a new baby comes home or a friend moves away. The imaginary friend, which is familiar, safe and comforting, can erase loneliness and allow your child to be in charge. Most imaginary friends are invisible, but some children use real items such as animals and stuffed toys.
Imaginary friends are a part of the fantasy and make-believe that is important for child development. Children who create imaginary friends have developmental advantages such as advanced verbal skills, according to researcher Marjorie Taylor. Children sometimes create multiple friends and whole worlds with enemies and complex social interactions. Your 4-year-old child might interact with her imaginary friends to try out emotions such as fear and anger. She can play games and make up scenarios. She can practice her negotiating skills and develop empathy. Children who have imaginary friends are more capable of considering different points of view.
How to Respond
Don’t embarrass your child or make fun of him. The relationship with his imaginary friend is private and he will want you to stay out of it unless invited. Follow his lead as he interacts with his imaginary friend and avoid making suggestions about the make-believe. Allow him to create his own story. Too much involvement from you can confuse him about reality and make-believe. Your 4-year-old is in charge, so he will probably limit your involvement to activities like setting a place at the table for his friend or making room for his friend in the car. Fill his day with friends and activities as he gets older to draw his interest away from the imaginary friend.
Recognizing a Problem
Although the imaginary friend is normal, healthy childhood occurrence, some red flags can signal the need for intervention. There might be a problem if your child constantly plays with his imaginary friend, even when his real friends are around, or if the play is violent or disturbing in other ways. Try to find out the role the imaginary friend fills in your child’s life. Ask about the friend’s name and talk about what they do together. If you are worried about the imaginary friend or if the friend is still around when you child is 9 years old, talk to your doctor.