Imaginary Friends in Toddlers and What They Mean

Imaginary Friends in Toddlers and What They Mean

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

Bobby first came into our lives when my son was about 27 months old. And now, a month later, Bobby is a nearly constant presence and part of my child’s make-believe world.

When my 2-year-old first started mentioning Bobby, my husband and I had no idea what he was talking about and were pretty confused. Did we know a Bobby? Was he just saying a word that sounded like Bobby? My husband brought up the possibility of an imaginary friend one day though, and then suddenly my son’s constant chatter about “Bobby” started to make more sense. 

While I was amused by the idea that my son had an imaginary friend, I started to wonder if make-believe friends were a normal part of a child’s development or alternatively, if they were a symptom of other issues. Should I be worried? Is my toddler lonely? Is an imaginary friend a big deal?

Is it Normal for Young Children to Have Imaginary Friendships?

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 in early childhood. 

Parents often question or have this worry that their kids are not “normal”. As adults, we forget that little kids are still so new to this world and they are in the early stages of forming frameworks for pretty much everything in this world, including themselves and their relationships. So if they don’t seem “normal” from an adult perspective, we need to remember that their brains are still forming and that we need to try and see the world from their perspective. 

And from a child’s perspective, what better way to test out some social skills than with an imaginary friend. And interestingly, child therapist Katie Lear explains that kids usually know that their imaginary friends are imaginary.   

Additionally, imaginary friends are quite common. The Atlantic reports that “…by age 7, 65 percent of children will have an imaginary friend…”. And there really isn’t a single typical form an imaginary friend can take. Apparently they come in all sorts of different forms! Mythical creatures, objects, entities and really any other invisible beings a child could imagine. If this is the case, I’m guessing there are some pretty wild and out of the box imaginary friends out there!

When to Worry About Imaginary Friends

While imaginary friends are usually a normal part of development, this is not necessarily always the case. Romper shares some scenarios in which imaginary friends in childhood could signal cause for concern. In these cases, there are some red flags to know.

For example, a red flag might be if a child says something bad has happened to their imaginary friend. They may actually be talking about a traumatic event that has happened to them, not to an imaginary friend.

Another example would be if a child is blaming inappropriate behavior on an imaginary friend. This could mean a child is struggling with managing some of their troublesome behaviors or knowing what is or is not appropriate. 

In my son’s case, I worried that Bobby might be taking the place of real friends, because my son really didn’t have any. As a stay at home mom in a small town, there just weren’t a ton of little kids running around and I struggled to find real life play buddies for him. Additionally, my son was born shortly after the Covid-19 pandemic swept the world, and he did not have many opportunities to socialize with other babies and young tots in his first years of life. So I wondered if Bobby was an indicator of some social problems my son was already experiencing.

I had to remind myself though, that many 2 year olds do not have a lot of experience in social situations with their peers and that they are still figuring it all out, especially those Covid babies. So unless my child’s imaginary friend raises some red flags like those previously noted, I will see his imaginary pal as a good thing and an important part of his creative play.

How Young Children Express Themselves Through Imaginary Friends

After getting to know my child’s imaginary friend (Bobby), I realized Bobby acted a whole lot like my son. Bobby also shared a lot of the same interests and emotional experiences as my 2-year-old. So I realized my child was using Bobby as a means of self-expression.  

Additionally, it makes sense that young kids create imaginary friends who share their interests and personality traits because then they make the perfect invisible playmate! And as mentioned, having an imaginary friend can help young children practice their social skills before they make real-life friends. 

Personal Self-Expression

Below are a couple of examples of how my 2 year old uses his imaginary friend to engage in some playful self-expression and social exploration;

On more than one occasion, my son has shouted, “Bobby jumped in my 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, because this is exactly how my toddler is. And I’m sure my toddler will be making some wild and mischevious little friends just like Bobby in the real life soon. 

My toddler has also been known to shout out while sitting at the dinner table, “Bobby is running outside with a banana!”. This interpretation of Bobby as a form of my son’s personal self-expression is pretty straightforward. My son loves to run. Anytime, anywhere. And he loves bananas. So in my child’s mind, how could he better express himself than talking about an imaginary friend who loves running wild while eating bananas?!

Emotional Self Expression

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

Here are some typical emotionally laden comments my toddler makes about his imaginary friend;

Bobby’s angry!”. Like any toddler, my 2-year-old gets angry and frustrated sometimes. And he is in the process of learning how to identify, express and regulate those emotions. So by sharing that Bobby is angry, he is able to indirectly share how he is feeling. 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 because I’m pretty sure this is my toddler’s way of saying “I love mommy”. I constantly tell my tot, “I love you”, and so I think he is learning more about our parent-child relationship and what loving one another means. 

Understanding Our Young Children Through Their Imaginary Playmates

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 he can communicate about his imaginary friend and indirectly about himself.

If I were to be critical towards my son and the fact that he had an imaginary friend on the other hand, I am afraid this would send the message that I do not value his imaginative play. Or worse, that I do not value him, since his imaginary friend is essentially an extension of himself. So unless there are red flags that indicate a larger mental health condition underlying a child’s imaginary friend, it seems they are usually a normal part of development, and a very entertaining one!

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

1 thought on “Imaginary Friends in Toddlers and What They Mean”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.