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Some preschool children have imaginary friends. It’s estimated that 12% to over 30% of three and four-year-olds have an imaginary friend that is treated like a true companion. But if your child has an imaginary friend, that might be the only one among the children you know (12% to 30% isn’t everybody, after all). You might wonder if having an imaginary friend means anything.

Imaginary friends can be pretend children, pretend adults, pretend animals or aliens, or can be imagined characters from movies or books or even stuffed toys that are treated like live friends. The pretend friend also can be a persona the child takes on himself, so that sometimes you’re talking to your son Billy and sometimes you’re talking to an alter ego. My younger son spent much of his preschool years being a friendly black dog.

So if your child has an imaginary companion, this is not all that unusual. And you’ll be relieved to hear that it doesn’t seem to mean all that much.

Marjorie Taylor, in her book, Imaginary Companions, reports that kids who have imaginary friends are not more lonely or more socially awkward than other kids. They also are not smarter or more creative.  If anything, kids with imaginary friends are more socially attuned than other children their age. It seems that the impulse to create an imaginary companion is a normal part of a particular child’s development, as kids sort out ways of behaving and interacting in the world.

So if your child develops a pretend friendship, there is no need to be concerned or to try to squelch this. Sometimes imaginary friends can be a bother to parents, if Mom and Dad have to take into consideration the needs of a person only their child can see. But there’s no reason to think an imaginary friend is a sign of some problem, because it’s not. On the other hand, there’s also no need to feel left out or concerned if your child doesn’t have an imaginary friend. Some kids do and some don’t.

There’s also no need to be terribly concerned if the imaginary friend hangs around well into your child’s elementary school (and even middle school) years. Many imaginary friends go underground as kids get older, since talking about pretended interactions is not well accepted by peers. Instead, the impulse to have an imaginary friend often morphs into the creation of entire imaginary worlds. Children from about age 9 on up may create fantasy worlds that are remarkably detailed and populated by many interesting characters. This is normal too.

Some adults (like authors Charlotte and Emily Bronte, for example) use their childhood fantasy worlds as the basis for a career in fiction writing, continuing to inhabit an alternate reality quite acceptably throughout their lives. But even pretend friends from the preschool years may never completely go away. Many adults still remember clearly their imaginary companions and feel a sense of affection for them.

Is one of those adults you?

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.