Having an imaginary friend, sometimes called an imaginary companion, is considered a normal and even healthy part of childhood play.

Research on imaginary friends has been ongoing for decades, with doctors and parents alike wondering whether it’s healthy or “normal.”

Most research has shown again and again that it’s typically a natural part of childhood for many children.

Earlier research states as many as 65 percent of children up to age 7 had an imaginary friend.

It’s not uncommon for children to create imaginary friends or companions — someone they can talk to, interact with, and play with.

These pretend friends may take the form of anything: an invisible friend, an animal, something fantastical, or within an item, like a toy or stuffed animal.

Most research has shown that having an imaginary friend is a healthy form of childhood play. Studies have even found there may be some benefits for development in those children who create imaginary companions.

Benefits may include:

  • superior social cognition
  • more sociability
  • boosted creativity
  • better coping strategies
  • increased emotional understanding

Imaginary friends may provide your child with friendship, support, entertainment, and more.

5 purposes for having an imaginary friend

In 2017, researchers described these five purposes for having an imaginary friend:

  1. problem-solving and emotion management
  2. exploring ideals
  3. having a companion for fantasy play
  4. having someone to overcome loneliness
  5. allowing children to explore behaviors and roles in relationships
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While some parents may be concerned, it’s completely normal for a child to have an imaginary friend.

Compared to children who don’t have an imaginary friend, children who do aren’t different in the following ways:

  • most personality traits
  • family structure
  • number of nonimaginary friends
  • experience in school

In the past, experts believed having an imaginary friend indicated an issue or a mental health condition. According to current research, this thinking has been discredited.

While most people associate young preschool-aged children with having imaginary companions, it’s actually normal for older children to have them, too.

Older research found 28 percent of children ages 5 to 12 had imaginary friends.

Girls are more likely than boys to have imaginary friends.

Imagination can be an important part of a child’s play and development. Having an imaginary friend can help a child explore relationships and work their creativity.

If your child tells you about their imaginary friend, ask questions. You can learn more about your child, their interests, and what the imaginary friend may be doing for them.

For example, is their imaginary friend teaching them how to deal with friendships?

It can also help to play along. Set an extra place at dinner, or ask your child if their friend is coming on trips, for instance.

If your child or their pretend friend becomes demanding or causes problems, you can set boundaries. There’s no need to give into bad behavior, pretend or otherwise. Plus, setting boundaries can be a teaching moment.

What if the imaginary friend is scary?

While most imaginary friends are thought of as kind, friendly, and obedient, not all have been described as so. Some have been called disruptive, rule breaking, or aggressive.

It’s possible that some imaginary friends even frighten, upset, or cause conflict with children. While many children express control or influence over their imaginary friend’s behavior, other children describe it as out of their control.

While it’s not entirely understood why an imaginary friend would be scary, it seems these imagined relationships still provide some sort of benefit to the child.

These more difficult relationships may still help a child navigate social relationships and cope with hard times in the real world.

Some parents worry that children with imaginary friends don’t have a good grasp on reality versus imagination, but this isn’t typically true.

In fact, most children understand their imaginary friends are pretend.

Every child is different and will grow out of this part of their lives at their own time. There are more reports of children under 7 with imaginary friends, though other reports have shown imaginary friends existing in children up to 12 years old.

There’s no need to worry if an older child still speaks about their imaginary friend.

If you do have any concerns because of your child’s behavior — and not just that they have their pretend friend — you can reach out to a mental health professional who specializes in pediatric care.

When it comes to a vivid imagination, parents may question whether their child is in fact experiencing hallucinations or psychosis.

Having an imaginary friend isn’t the same as experiencing these symptoms, which are often associated with schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia doesn’t typically show symptoms until a person is between 16 and 30 years old.

Childhood-onset schizophrenia is rare and difficult to diagnose. When it does occur, it usually happens after age 5 but before 13.

Some symptoms of childhood schizophrenia include:

  • paranoia
  • changes in mood
  • hallucinations, such as hearing voices or seeing things
  • sudden changes in behavior

If your child has sudden disruptive changes in their behavior and is experiencing something much more than an imaginary friend, reach out to their pediatrician or a mental health professional.

While schizophrenia symptoms and imaginary friends are often different and separate, there are other mental and physical conditions that may have a link.

Research in 2006, for instance, found that children who go on to develop dissociative disorders had a much higher likelihood of having an imaginary friend.

Dissociative disorders are mental health conditions where a person experiences a disconnect from reality.

Other research has suggested that adults with Down syndrome have a higher rate of imaginary companions and are more likely to keep these friends into adulthood.

There’s not a lot of research on imaginary friends in adulthood.

In a recent study, researchers did find that 7.5 percent of those studied reported experiencing an imaginary friend as an adult. However, this was a small sample size and had some limitations. Further research is needed.

With that being said, there seems to be no indication that an imaginary friend continuing into adulthood means anything different than one in childhood.

It may just be a sign of coping or of a strong imagination, though experts are unsure.

On the other hand, if an adult hears voices, sees things that aren’t there, or experiences other signs of hallucinations or psychosis, an underlying mental health condition, such as schizophrenia, may be at play.

Most times, imaginary friends are harmless and normal. But if you believe your child is experiencing something more, see their primary doctor.

Any time the behaviors and moods of your child shift dramatically or start to worry you, reach out for support from your child’s doctor or a mental health professional.

If your child’s imaginary friend ever becomes scary, aggressive, or frightening to your child, an evaluation with a mental health professional can give you peace of mind.

To find a doctor near you, follow these links:

You may also seek a licensed counselor, psychiatric nurse practitioner, or other doctor who can help.

Having an imaginary friend is a normal and healthy part of childhood play. Having one has even shown benefits in childhood development.

If your child has an imaginary friend, it’s totally OK. They can grow out of it in their own time as they stop needing the skills that their companion is teaching them.