Four-year-old Ayomide Ragon has a large circle of friends from her daycare and her neighborhood. But her best friend, her mom Funmilola Macaulay says, is her pet bunny — Ayomide’s imaginary friend of two years that lives in her armpit. The bunny makes random appearances, and celebrates a birthday at least once a week.
“I think the bunny expands her friend circle,” says Macaulay, who acknowledges that the bunny has also helped Ayomide cope with isolation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. “We engage with her and ask her questions — what color the bunny is (pink), what he is doing (eating carrots) and how old he is today (currently 12).”
Ayomide is just one of millions of children who create relationships with imaginary friends during their adolescence. But why do kids develop imaginary friends? Is it healthy? Should parents encourage or discourage it?
We turned to the experts for advice.
Why kids have imaginary friends
According to Arthur Lavin, a pediatrician and chair of the American Association of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, the concept of imaginary friends starts to come in at around 3 to 4 years old and tapers off at around 5 to 6, when real friendships begin to form.
“Imaginary friends let kids leave Mom and Dad and try out the idea of being ‘me,’ separate from their parents with a relationship that has nothing to do with them,” Lavin says. “Kids can play around with the concept of what friendship is, and what it means to have a relationship with someone outside of the home.”
Lavin calls this type of relationship a “luxury,” where kids can do whatever they want — something they cannot do in real friendships.
Lavin encourages parents to “enjoy this phenomenon” of letting their child embrace an imaginary friend rather than discourage it.
“It is completely healthy and signals normal development,” he says.
When imaginary friends become a problem
Dr. Jerry Bubrick, senior psychologist at the Child Mind Institute Anxiety Disorder Center, says it is problematic if imaginary friends continue past the age of 9 or 10 — a time when social play becomes more interactive.
“At that point, if a child is relying on their imaginary friend instead of a real friend, it’s a red flag that something more is going on,” says Bubrick, who suggests kids may prefer fantasy over reality because they may be getting teased, or simply not know how to properly interact with their peers.
“Sometimes, the imaginary friend becomes a shield from potential harm or embarrassment from real people,” Bubrick says.
If this is the case, Bubrick encourages parents to have a talk with their child to find out what they like about the imaginary friend and point out the same qualities in real people. He cautions parents not to downplay or discredit the imaginary friend.
“It’s about finding a balance,” he says. “Let your child know that they can spend time with their imaginary friends, real friends, family and even have alone time.”
Parents with growing concerns should consult with a developmental pediatrician, child psychologist or therapist, Bubrick recommends.
The impact of COVID-19 on imaginary friendships
Lavin says that it is “quite possible” for children to bring their friend back after a period of isolation — similar to summers or family trips — even though that imaginary friend may have “left.”
Bubrick says he views the resurgence of imaginary friends as a positive, creative outlet.
“When the world is telling us not to be social, it’s a beautiful thing to see a child find a way around it,” he says.
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This article also appeared in Chicago Parent’s fall 2020 magazine.