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Imaginary Friends: The Benefits of Your Kid's Scapegoat, Confidant and Alter Ego

By and large, pretend pals can be a means to help children explore boundaries, new situations and more. Here's how they're useful – and what parents can do about them.

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My 4-year-old daughter has a roster of imaginary characters she calls upon whenever she needs a friend or two. There's Lily, Meadow, twins Martha and Tartha, and a boy, Nick, who perished in quicksand but still appears from time to time.

Violet's true BIFF, though – best imaginary friend forever – is Sally.

Sally is very loyal, always by Violet's side. But she's a bad, bad girl. She uses her outside voice in the house and sometimes won't share. She's been known to peel bindings off board books and draw on the walls.

My son's imaginary companion took an even darker turn. Soon after we moved into a new house, when Verick was 4 years old, he began describing a "shadow guy" who rose from the carpet and wheeled around the house on a unicycle trying to steal our dreams. Creepy, right?

One day, Verick strapped on an imaginary backpack, hunted the guy down and ghostbusted him. He later reappeared as a friend, not foe.

I've come to wonder if the shadow guy helped Verick deal with his anxiety over moving and to express his fears about our new house. And Sally – who bears a suspicious resemblance to my daughter (pink boots, princess gloves and all) – is obviously a scapegoat for Violet's bad behavior.

I asked around to see if any of my friends have imaginary playmates in their homes.

Turns out Detroit-area mom Megan Pennefather's 4-year-old, Luke, has an imaginary baby and child, both named Luke after himself.

"I would sit on the couch and he would freak out, 'My kid is sitting there,'" Pennefather says.

Wendie DeLano, a mother of two in Livonia, says her daughter Lilly has an imaginary older sister named Emily. "She has a lot of birthdays that we need to celebrate. Always when Lilly wants cake," DeLano says.

Molly McDonald, founder of The Pink Fund, recalls her daughter's imaginary friend Lint and his sibling, Fuzz – although Erin, now 29, hardly remembers.

"I am not sure why, because she had real friends at preschool and two younger sisters," McDonald says.

I think I have insight into why my children concocted their invisible companions, but what I don't know is, should I worry?

Fantasy vs. reality

According to imagination expert Marjorie Taylor, author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them, pretend pals are quite common, especially among the preschool set. In fact, her research shows two-thirds of children have an imaginary friend by age 7.

Taylor runs the Imagination Lab at the University of Oregon, which researches the development of imagination in children. In particular, the lab is interested in the creation of imaginary companions and the role they play in social and cognitive development.

In her interviews with children, Taylor has met imaginary friends in many forms – animals of various species, an insect, a puffball, a sparkly flying dolphin and even a 160-year-old businessman.

"They can dance, they can fly, they have super powers. Some are extremely obedient, others are obnoxious, with difficult characteristics like swearing, messing up your room, putting yogurt in your hair," Taylor says. "It really gives you an appreciation of a child's creativity."

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