How Imaginary Friends Work

Or Are Imaginary Friends a Sign of Something Great?
Data shows that children who have imaginary friends tend to be more engaged, more creative and also typically spend less time on TV and screens. JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Shapiro's right about another thing: Creativity plays a big role in imaginary friendships, and it may actually be one of the major payoffs. Ziegler agrees and says having the capacity to make up a friend and act out various scenarios can signify healthy development and growth in children.

"Some of the data shows kids with imaginary friends are more engaged, more creative and also typically spend less time on TV and screens," she says. "Boredom is an important part of intellect and child development because then kids start coming up with stuff." So, she says, boredom allows them the means to do cool things. Like create make-believe people and friends. "I love to emphasize that to parents: Don't schedule all their time and don't just put a screen in front of them," Ziegler explains. "If they're bored, encourage them to figure out something to do."

Besides improving a child's capacity for creativity, a make-believe friend also can provide a safe space for exploration and development in other critical areas like empathy. "Empathy is the ability to imagine what another person is feeling or feeling what another person is feeling," Walker says. "So, having an imaginary friend can allow a child to exercise their capacity to feel what someone else is feeling." Children without creative imaginations frequently lack that ability, which is critical to their abilities to be compassionate and empathetic.

And while imaginary friends may be useful in the development of these crucial emotional and intellectual aspects, they also can just be really fun. "I'm a certified play therapist, and for us, it's a type of play," Ziegler says. "I might start to have concerns if the imaginary play gets in the way of actual friends and connections. That's a red flag. But for most kids, they might play with imaginary friends quietly in their rooms or take them on trips, but are still pretty engaged in everything and are OK."

Walker agrees: play matters. "An easy example is watching wolf packs or cubs play," he says. "It's a way for them to learn to hunt and socialize and live well in a pack. It's all about play when they're very young. The same is true for children. You don't learn social skills by 10 or 12, or if you do, you learn them by rote, which you can do, but it's not as good as learning because you were on the playground and you figured it out. This is a part of that."