These notes were stimulated by an initial article in the national press concerning the frequency with which young children have an imaginary friend (or more than one imaginary friend).
A search among other resources confirmed that this kind of behaviour is common among pre-school children, especially around 3 or 4 years of age, and does not seem to be linked to particular circumstances such as the extent to which the children in question are isolated from like-aged peers.
Further, the existence of imaginary friends is not perceived as a reflection of some developmental anomaly, but can be associated with enhanced emotional resilience and advanced communication skills.
M.J.Connor (…with a little help from Myrtle) November 2005
Ongoing work at the University of Manchester (Roby et al 2005) has studied a sample of 20 children between the ages of 4 and 8 years who have created imaginary friends or companions.
Existing and converging estimates have indicated that large numbers of children, up to as many as 60 or 70%, will have had such a friend at some stage in their lives, and these statistics support the view that the invisible friends should not become a source of concern to parents or carers.
On the contrary, Roby et al hold that there is evidence that they can help children to be more creative, confident, and articulate, and it is hoped that this evidence will reduce the common misperception that having an imaginary friend is somehow indicative of a disadvantage or emotional deficit.
Imaginary friends can be entirely invisible and created mentally by the children; or the friend may be a stuffed toy for which the child creates a personality and a range of (psychological) characteristics.
Roby (a research assistant working under supervision) has identified a whole range of types of friend or companion created by the children, including supplementary parents (mothers), like-aged peers, dogs, dragons, tigers, objects, etc., and argues that their existence does seem to be associated with enhanced communication skills. Their precise nature may change over time, but any imaginary friend is seen as having a personality and consciousness of its own and as having likes/dislikes, favoured activities, etc..
It may be that some of the children concerned are shy or do not have much opportunity to interact with others, but the creation of a friend can be observed across a whole range of children and their various circumstances.
Majors (2005) holds that the phenomenon is a positive and psychologically healthy element within the play of normally-developing children.
The reasons observed cover a range of motives such as having a safe and dependable companion at the time when friendships are being established and practised; access to a confidant(e); a guaranteed play-mate; etc.. It may also be a matter of wish-fulfilment as in the case of a child who is very keen to have a pet but, if circumstances preclude having a real pet, has to invent one.
Whatever the motivation or the identity of the friend, it appears that the child becomes more skilled at using language and sharing a conversation (given that he or she is providing both sides of the interaction !)
Parental anxieties about invisible friends may reflect a fear lest it means that the child is, or will become, introverted; or that the friendship with the imaginary companion will inhibit relationships in the real world; or even that the behaviour is a precursor to childhood schizophrenia. However, evidence indicates that such fears have no foundation, and that the presence of the invisible friend can help by the child by providing the means of expressing anxieties or demonstrating feelings.
The implication for parents is not to interfere or to try to persuade the child to give up the friend, but to allow the behaviour to continue until it has run its natural course
(which, typically, is when the child starts school).
At the same time, the parent should remain somewhat detached, and while going along with the presence of the imaginary friend in terms, for example, of agreeing to lay a place for it at teatime or to avoid sitting on it, the parent is advised not to take over, or add to, the imaginary scenario that is actually the child’s creation.
Majors’ experience as a lecturer and researcher at the London Institute of Education also indicates that the imaginary friend is not always abandoned when the children start school, but can be maintained (in secret) for the longer term, up to and including the teenage years, as a source of reassurance and escape. The friend can provide the opportunity to rehearse what to say or how to act, and the invisible presence can continue to be reassuring at times of any stress.
In any event, it is likely that the children who create these companions have a strong imagination and a high level of creativity, and the evolution and elaboration of the characters can extend and enhance these already positive characteristics.
Guidelines from the Australian Child and Youth Health Service make much the same reassuring points … that imaginary friends are quite common, and that, while the child in question may be only or oldest child in a family, there is no implication that an imaginary friend signifies feelings of loneliness.
The guidelines reinforce the potential benefits of imaginary friends including ….
With regard to some perceived emotional immaturity or deficit, there is reassurance from Carlson and Taylor (2004) that a majority of children have played with an imaginary friend by the age of 7 years, and 30+% of children continue to have the imaginary friend at and beyond the age of 7 years.
These authors report that the children who create an imaginary friend have a self image in terms of competence or social acceptability as high as children who do not have such a friend, and their personalities do not seem differentiable.
The evidence gained from a review of existing data indicated that pre-school girls were more likely than pre-school boys to have an imaginary friend, but that, by age 7, boys and girls were equally likely to have one.
The evidence also indicates that around 60% of the imaginary friends are human, and around 40% are animals.
Their study of 100 children (50 boys and 50 girls) indicates that the imaginary friends come and go, offering companionship and entertainment as needed, and can provide a boost to confidence (as in the child’s being willing to walk along a dark corridor when accompanied by a trusted friend).
Conflict resolution can also be practised, and the authors also stress how parents who listen to the pretend play can often gain insights into their child’s fears and perceived challenges.
About a quarter of the sample had pretend friends about whom the parents did not have awareness; and the reactions of the other parents varied widely from a kind of indulgence, or even pride in the imaginative capacity shown, to high anxiety about the perceived emotional deficits.
The advice is that imaginary friends are not a sign of emotional problems, and parents need only become concerned if a child claims that the friend is in control and forcing him or her to behave in unacceptable ways, or if the child is pre-occupied with the imaginary friend and spends much of each day talking about or playing with this fantasy figure to the exclusion of other activities (including actual relationships) which could be an indication of significant insecurity.
The imaginary friends fade out in much the same way as do toys or games as the children lose interest in them, or are replaced by new imaginary friends or by real friendships with other children.
The final point from this study was a reinforcement of the probability of cognitive and emotional benefits from an active fantasy life as well as the opportunity to manage social situations in a safe context and to gain facility with abstract material and thoughts.
It is also noted that children with little experience of this kind of impersonation tend to produce low scores on measures of emotional understanding and empathy … with the further implication that the practice of imaginative and creative skills associated with the creation of an imaginary friend has positive effects upon the development of empathic and theory of mind skills.
In sum (and quoting the DSH Dictionary of Child Care), the use of imaginary friends can provide the young child with a range of cognitively stimulating experiences as well as enabling some children to gain a means of compensating for periods of anxiety or stress and of filling social gaps.
These friends appear to serve a function quite similar to that of a favourite toy or a comfort blanket when confronted with some unusual situation; but it should be stressed that recourse to imaginary friends is common, is developmentally positive, and is not to be seen as a reaction to some emotional or social deficit.
One might ponder whether the child really believes in the existence of these friends or companions; and it appears that, however forcefully the child defends the existence of the friend, he or she usually recognises that they are pretend figures …. especially given the observation that the imaginary friend might well disappear quite quickly in the face of other children who might make fun of the fantasy figure.
In other words, imaginary friends are common, are not usually indicative of any problem, and can facilitate cognitive and communicative gains. Only if they begin to interfere with day to day routines, or become established long-term and well beyond infant school age, should one begin to wonder if they reflect some social or emotional concern.
Carlson S. and Taylor M. 2004 Pretend friends : real benefits. Summary published in USA Today (December 204) - Original article in Developmental Psychology
Roby A. 2005 Cited in …. Invisible Benefits. The Sunday Times (October 30th) - By-Line : Sian Griffiths
Majors K. 2005 Also cited in … Invisible Benefits (op cit)
Roby A., Kidd E., and Serratrice L. 2005 Ongoing research project about imaginary friendship and their effect upon child development. Manchester University : Max Planck Child Study Centre
© Mike Connor 2005.
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