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An imaginary friend is a fictional friend often created by a child. The child may treat the friend in quite a real way. He or she may play with an imaginary friend or talk to it, he might try to feed it, or blame the friend if a misdeed is committed.
It is quite common for a child to have an imaginary friend, and it does not signify that the child has any type of disorder. While it is the case that some children with autism have one, most children with imaginary friends have no brain processing or psychological problems.
In fact, an imaginary friend is often a wonderful way for children to express their creativity. The friend opens up the possibility of experiencing all kinds of fantasy. As well, friend may be of significant help to a child from a psychological standpoint. The friend, or imaginary lands the child creates, can help the child order the world into the way he or she would like it.
In some cases, having an imaginary friend is a response to loneliness or inordinate stress in the home, making it a beneficial coping device. A child who is isolated may need to have a friend to play with. Children who live in stressful conditions may use their imaginations for wish fulfillment.
Generally, parents should not be concerned about a child’s imaginary friend, especially when children are young. Concern should arise when the friend prevents the child from making real friends. For example, a kindergartner that continues to play with his “friend” rather than interacting with other children may need a little help adjusting between the real and the imagined.
However, challenging the child and attempting to force the child to give up the friend is a very bad practice. If the imaginary friend is isolating the child socially, play therapy is helpful to allow the child to gradually transition away from him or her. Forcing the child to “face realities,” can be cruel and strips the child of the ability to order his or her own dream life.
Concerns arise when children in their teens develop imaginary friends. Ascertaining to what extent the child believes the friend is real is important. Some teen girls have imaginary boyfriends, a quite harmless practice, when they understand that the boyfriend doesn't really exist.
A teen or young adult with an imaginary enemy or friend, however, may be manifesting some degree of schizophrenia. Talking to one’s self frequently or believing that some unknown enemy is going to hurt one suggests the teen should be evaluated by a mental health practitioner.
Young children, conversely, are generally quite psychologically healthy when conceiving an imaginary friend. Studies further show that such children may enhance their self-esteem by having a friend who treats them with the utmost respect, and unconditional love. Children are also attempting to define the difference between fantasy and reality. As they mature, in most cases, the imaginary friend becomes less real, though the friend may remain a treasured memory of innocent days.