It is a common idea that children with imaginary friends have issues for which they are compensating, and while this may be the case, it is not the sole reason your child will develop a friendship with an invented chum.
Research shows that girls are more likely than boys to have imaginary friends, or at the very least just to acknowledge them, while boys are more likely to impersonate fantasy characters.
Children who have imaginary friends can distinguish fantasy from reality, so there’s no reason to worry when your child exhibits signs that he or she has a made-up companion. They are more likely to engage in pretend-play than children without companions, and they play more happily and more imaginatively. Studies also show they are more fluent with language, watch less television and show more excitement, persistence and curiosity. In one study in particular, children with imaginary friends showed a keener ability to do theory-of-mind tasks than children who did not. These children also showed a greater emotional understanding three years later.
Having imaginary friends is common in early development, and approximately 1/3 of children have them. The relationship the child has to his or her imaginary companion is like a normal peer relationship which is characterised by reciprocity, unlike children who nurture or take care of other objects like stuffed toys or dolls.
Imaginary friends also provide wish fulfilment functions, such as when a child has an absent parent and compensates for this, or the desire for a sibling which is then role-played through imagination. They are also a safe way for a child to express his or her fears or support themselves in difficult situations, such as standing up to a bully. Self-esteem is increased through imaginary friends, as is creativity.
The only time an imaginary friend should cause alarm is if your child’s developmental age has surpassed this stage. An imaginary friend at the age of seven or eight may represent a bigger problem. If the friend is a character that concerns you, such as one who is modelled after something negative, consulting a professional for guidance and advice is the best option. But keep in mind that imaginary friends are perfectly healthy, and are even considered a positive step in development of your child’s emotional and psychosocial development, as well as his or her cognitive functioning.
Sources: A Child’s World, 12th Edition.