Are imaginary friends cause for concern or a natural expression of a child's active imagination?

The Teacher's Story

"WHERE'S BELINDA'S snack?" Chloe asked as I set out cookies and juice. Not knowing whether to continue playing along, I busied myself putting out napkins while I considered what to say. I knew she very much wanted me to include her imaginary friend, Belinda, in our snacktime.

For months, Chloe's make-believe companion has been by her side. Chloe gives Belinda materials to make collages. When the two have tea parties, the real little girl chatters happily to the empty place at the table. Sometimes Chloe even scolds Belinda for misbehaving: scribbling on a classmate's picture or pushing ahead of another child at the playground door. It is fascinating that Chloe would never do the things she chastises Belinda for doing. Chloe is a sweet child and very well liked, and everyone enjoys the elaborate stories she tells at group time. Still, I am concerned about her. If she keeps up this friendship with Belinda, won't Chloe have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction and making real friends? At the same time, I have noticed that Chloe's mother seems more amused than concerned about the situation, so maybe I should just relax and go along with it.

The Parent's Story

OUR FOUR-YEAR-OLD daughter Chloe, is a wonderfully imaginative child. We enjoy making up stories to tell each other. Usually I start the story and Chloe finishes it, but she is also quite capable of dictating a whole story by herself. We draw and do crafts projects together too. Her latest project is a bird feeder that she and her dad want to finish by spring. Chloe plans to paint it purple and pink.

But now Chloe has brought an imaginary friend named Belinda into our lives. At first I welcomed Belinda, because I thought it was a good idea to encourage Chloe's imaginative nature. We put a toothbrush and a towel in the bathroom for Belinda; then, because Chloe said that Belinda sleeps right beside her bed, we put a sleeping bag on the floor for her. Belinda goes wherever our family goes, so she not only has a place at our kitchen table but also accompanies us to restaurants.

When Belinda started going to school with Chloe, the teacher seemed uncomfortable. So now I've started wondering if we've been too accepting of our daughter's imaginary companion and whether we should be discouraging Chloe's dependence on her pretend friend. 

Dr. Brodkin's Assessment It is not unusual for preschool-age children to have an imaginary companion. This "friend," who travels about with the family and follows the child to school, usually vanishes in less than a year. While teachers and parents may find the friend disconcerting, there is rarely cause for concern.

At this age children are at the height of their imaginative capacities, and Chloe's imagination has been actively encouraged at home. Happily, her parents value pretend play as much as storytelling and art projects. Unless it appears that Chloe's real life is dissatisfying or lonely, it's fine to accept her pretend friend and consider the situation temporary. However, because your long-term goal is to help the fantasy fade, it's wise not to be too welcoming, just matter-of-fact.

What Can the Teacher Do?

The teacher need not worry that this child is losing touch with reality. If she quietly accepts Chloe's imaginary companion and encourages the little girl's participation in classroom and social activities, Belinda will probably fade away gradually.

The teacher's observations suggest that Chloe may be expressing normal aggressive feelings through Belinda. When Chloe becomes less concerned about being "bad," she will have little need for Belinda in school. So that Chloe doesn't feel the need to be perfect, it would be best to avoid admonishing her for minor misbehavior. The classroom should feel like a place in which Chloe - and everyone - can safely express thoughts and feelings through increasingly elaborate pretend play.

What Can the Parent Do?

It's good that Chloe's parents enjoy her imagination and are so relaxed about her having an imaginary friend. Chloe wants to please her mom and dad and have them continue to appreciate her talents. Still, it wouldn't help Chloe if her make-believe world were to become more fascinating than the real world.

Her parents can arrange regular playdates for Chloe and plan family outings that involve interesting activities. Such things will certainly not squelch their daughter's delightful imagination.