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Your Child's Imaginary Friend ... What It Means

You're about to sit down on the couch next to your 4-year-old and she yells, "Don't sit there! You'll crush Gertrude!"

Oops. You should have known better. "Gertrude" goes everywhere your daughter goes.

If your child starts hanging around with an imaginary friend, enjoy the company. It's often part of a child's development, usually happens between ages 3 and 6, and can offer wonderful insights into your child's world.

Imaginary friends range from animals to miniature people to objects, such as a favorite blanket. They're buddies for lonely children. And they have unique qualities.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children with imaginary friends are learning language skills, social skills, creativity, and empathy for real people.

The AAP suggests that if your child spills milk and blames their imaginary friend, don't make a big deal out of it, but ask the child to help clean it up. Tell your child that you know it's hard to admit it, but you know it was not the friend who spilled the milk.

In addition, the AAP says that it's all right to encourage these "relationships," as long as things don't go too far. For example, an extra glass of milk for the friend is OK, but not an entire meal. Tell children they can pretend to feed their friend a hamburger.

The only cause for worry is if it becomes apparent children are relying on their imaginary friends exclusively and don't play with real children, the AAP says. In that case, ask your doctor for advice. Usually by age 6 or 7, the imaginary friend will "disappear" just as quietly as he or she "appeared." Until then, enjoy this opportunity to see your child's imagination at work.