Why Does my 2 Year Old have an Imaginary Friend?

Why Does my 2 Year Old have an Imaginary Friend?

Meet Bobby: he is approximately 2 inches tall, has grey hair, blue eyes and wears train pajama pants. Bobby likes to run fast and he also like to hide in things – like pillows, snack cups and avocados. He can even go into other people’s bodies and become them!

This is the gist of what I have gleaned about my 2 year old’s imaginary friend. Bobby first came into our lives when my son was about 27 months old. And now a month later, Bobby seems to be a nearly constant presence.

When my 2 year old first started mentioning Bobby, my husband and I were not sure what he was talking about. When my husband brought up the possibility of an imaginary friend though, my son’s constant chatter about “Bobby” started to make more sense.

And while I was amused by Bobby, I started to wonder, why does my 2 year old have an imaginary friend? Should I be worried? Is my toddler lonely? Is it normal for 2 year olds to have imaginary friends? And what exactly are 2 year old’s envisioning when they talk about their imaginary friends?

Child Development and Imaginary Friends

As it turns out, Healthline explains that imaginary friends are usually nothing to worry about. In fact, they are often a sign of a healthy imagination and a desire to explore and develop new social and emotional skills. And in terms of prevalence, The Atlantic reports that “…by age 7, 65 percent of children will have an imaginary friend…”. Furthermore, imaginary friends can take all sorts of shapes and forms; fantastical creatures, objects, entities, there really seems to be no limit!

Important to note though, Romper shares some scenarios in which an imaginary friend could signal cause for concern. Examples of this might include something like your child saying something bad has happened to their imaginary friend, or blaming inappropriate behavior on their imaginary friend. This could indicate they are using their imaginary friend to talk about something bad that has actually happened to them, or that they are struggling with certain behaviors. 

Since my toddler has not expressed any concerning issues regarding Bobby, and Bobby has only once mischievously poked me in the eye, I’m inclined to celebrate my 2 year old’s imaginary friend. I love hearing about Bobby’s latest antics and my son lights up and giggles whenever he talks about his imaginary friend. And despite my son’s wide eyed amazement whenever he spots Bobby running around the house, Katie Lear explains that kids usually know that their imaginary friends are imaginary. 

So as I learn more about Bobby everyday, I also learn more about my son. I learn about his imagination and creativity, his growing social awareness, his interests and likes, his personality and his emotional development. When I started seeing Bobby as an extension of my son’s internal world, I realized just how much he was expressing about himself!

Toddlers Express Their Emotions through Imaginary Friends

It is easier for kid’s to understand and talk about their emotions when they assign it to a character outside of themselves, or in my son’s case, his imaginary friend. Kaiser Permanente uses the term “symbolic language” to define this phenomena of children using other people or animals from stories to express their emotions. By using a character, they are able to explore and talk about what they are experiencing and feelings, without having to directly talk about themselves. 

Here are some typical comments my toddler makes regarding his imaginary friend;

“Bobby’s angry.” – Like any toddler, my 2 year old gets angry and frustrated sometimes. But he is learning how to identify and express those emotions! And this indicates that he is learning to regulate his emotions, which is an important part of healthy emotional development. You can read more about emotional regulation development and toddlers in my post on “Helping Toddlers Deal with Big Feelings”. 

“Bobby loves mommy.” – While my 2 year old has never said, “I love Mommy”, I am super touched that Bobby loves me :). I often tell my toddler, “I love you”, and so I think he is learning more about our parent-child relationship and loving one another.

Toddlers Express Their Interests and Personalities Through Imaginary Friends

It makes sense that kids would create an imaginary friend that shares their own interests and personality traits that they can have fun playing with! And having an imaginary friend can help them practice their social skills before they make friends in the real world. 

Below are a couple of examples of statements my 2 year old has made about his imaginary friend;

“Bobby jumped in the snack cup!” – The fact that Bobby is only about 2 inches tall and is constantly running and hiding in things makes me think about my toddler’s active and playful nature. It is not surprising that Bobby is always on the move and playing games. I’m sure my toddler will be making some wild little friends in the real world soon. 

“Bobby is running outside with a banana!” – My son loves to run. Anytime, anywhere. And he loves bananas. So, often interpretations regarding imaginary friends’ behaviors are pretty straightforward!

Supporting Imagination and Social-Emotional Development in Toddlers

I often ask my son questions about his imaginary friend to get a better understanding of what is going on for him internally. And I’m often amazed at how much my 2 year old is able to communicate about his imaginary friend and indirectly himself!

So I always let my toddler lead the conversation and have full ownership of whatever vision he has cooked up of his imaginary friend (unless it’s something regarding an undesirable behavior like hitting etc). It’s always entertaining to hear his responses, and I love supporting his wild imagination!

Does your child have an imaginary friend? Please say hi and tell me a bit about it in the comments below!

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