There’s a new family member, only you can’t see them. Imaginary friends are more common than you might think and your child’s new buddy might be sticking around, so here’s what you need to know

Julie, Frank, Unicorn or Luna – your child surprises you with an important new friend, a whole and complex figment of their imagination. It can be baffling, alarming even, but there are good reasons to play along. For one thing, it’s a sign of your child’s burgeoning imagination. For another, their best new buddy can give them comfort, and confidence in the world they are navigating. 

Age and stage

Imaginary friends are surprisingly common. A 2004 joint study by the universities of Oregon and Washington suggested well over half (65%) of all children may have had one by age seven. This is a quite normal development phase, and not a sign of either higher IQ or underlying issues. Typically, imaginary friends appear in children’s lives from around age three and are usually gone by the age of 11. Oh, and there may be more than one. The Oregon/Washington study found some children have multiple different playmates – up to 13 was recorded.

The burning question for most parents is why their child has created an imaginary friend. There’s no concrete answer, but children may weave impressively complex back stories involving the friend’s family and lifestyle – for play, companionship or to develop ideas and stories. It is suggested that boys may opt for superhero-style imaginary friends, while girls often act as wise counsel for their buddies – but, again, no firm rules apply here. Your main worry is keeping up with plotlines and names.

Making space

So how do you manage your child’s elusive playmate on a day-to-day basis? The answer is that reasonable accommodations should be made. Setting a place at the table or playing along by making ‘room’ in the car is fine – even if older siblings raise an eyebrow. And don’t be surprised if your child chatters to their friend incessantly or disappears to their room to play with them.

“Some children have multiple different imaginary friends – up to 13 has been recorded”

Not all friends are human – quite a high proportion are animals or mythical creatures, and this is just another aspect of young children’s vivid imagination and ability to develop characters and complex role play.

Most advice suggests you don’t ask too many questions as your child likes to be in control of their special relationship – and they may not tell you everything. They can be fickle too, abandoning or switching buddies at will. The only thing to watch is an imaginary friend who keeps causing trouble. Muddy footprints or crayon-daubed bedroom walls can’t be blamed on Julie, Frank, Unicorn or Luna without some firm but fair parental intervention. So, make it clear that if they are under your roof, your child’s imaginary friend has to follow your house rules.

Further reading: Tackling tiny terrors before they become big phobias