Should you be worried if your child has an imaginary friend? New studies suggest that they’re a healthy and positive sign of potential.
Emma’s three-year-old, Ben, has a friend called George. George comes to visit when Ben’s big brother won’t play with him; Ben talks to George, plays games with him and usually wins.
Sophie, aged five, has a winged horse called Glitter, whose foals sleep in her bed, while four-year-old Henry has a whole gang of friends called Mr Nobody, Mrs I Don’t Know and Invisible Man. He talks to each in different voices and often invites them over for tea.
What all these friends have in common is that they’re the inventions of bright and lively children who are exploring emotions and ideas using a concept that psychologists call 'paracosm', or what most of us would call 'imaginary friends'. Parents often worry when their children develop these imaginary friends, but it’s a very common phenomenon, and usually nothing to worry about. The imaginary friend can be a personified object such as a teddy bear, though often it’s an invisible companion.
In most cases, the level of invention involved just shows how imaginative the child is; contributors to Mumsnet report imaginary friends who apparently live in their children’s tummies, have their own children, have to have their own seat in the car, live under the bed, hold long conversations or have their own dietary requirements.
Eldest or only children are more likely to invent imaginary friends, boys invariably inventing male friends, while girls tend to have friends of either gender.
The Real Deal
Developmental psychologist Marjorie Taylor of the University of Oregon studied the phenomenon in the 1990s. Her exploration of the relationship between imaginary companions and children’s social and cognitive development into adulthood challenges negative views of imaginary friends.
Taylor’s studies were prompted by her experience with her own three-year-old Amber, who had an imaginary friend called Michael Rose. Taylor thought he was another child in Amber’s daycare class, until she was told that Michael Rose owned a barn full of giraffes.
Taylor started professionally studying imaginary companions in the late 1980s, after attending a lecture by Harvard University psychologist Paul Harris. In his study, he presented an empty box to children and asked them to imagine that there was a monster inside. He raised the question whether children believe their imaginary friends are real.
The study countered many historical attitudes to imaginary friends—that they were harmful or evil, signs of social deficit, or even aspects of mental illness or demonic possession.
You're Not Alone
The assumption that children who invent invisible friends might be lonely or have social problems isn’t supported by research. In fact, these children tend to be less shy, engage in more laughing and smiling with peers and do better at tasks involving imagining how someone else might think.
Psychologists say it’s no cause for concern and can be a valuable coping mechanism during life transitions such as adjusting to a new home, school or sibling. It’s a technique for children to practice fledgling social skills in an environment where they’re in control—and sometimes for them to shift the blame for bad behaviour.
But do the kids know it’s a fantasy? Psychologist Kimberly Eckert says that creating and sustaining an imaginary friendship is a sophisticated cognitive skill. “Kids can separate what’s real life and what’s fantasy life. They know it’s pretend play,” she says—indeed most of the children interviewed in Taylor’s studies volunteered the information that their friends were ‘made up’.
Imaginary companions usually disappear by the time kids head off to school, when they usually grow out of the phase, though there are accounts of teenagers who retain them from childhood or who first develop them as teens.
Having said that, the true paracosm—a detailed imaginary world, often involving its own geography, history and language—can be an experience that continues into later life.
In an article in the International Handbook on Giftedness, Michelle Root-Bernstein writes about paracosm play as an indicator of high levels of intelligence and creativity, which may "supplement objective measures of intellectual giftedness ... as well as subjective measures of superior technical talent"—in other words, research suggests that creative kids, those most likely to become artists or programmers, have the most paracosmic activity. Indeed, adult writers often speak of their characters ‘taking on a life of their own’.
So, if your child does have an imaginary friend, it’s probably a good sign and shouldn’t be discouraged. If you ask the child about their friend, you may learn something about their own interests, wishes and concerns.
If it’s not too much trouble to set an extra place at the table or to leave space on the sofa, feel free to play along, but let your child be in charge of this unique and magical expression of their imagination.
But don’t be afraid to put your foot down if behaviour becomes disruptive—for instance if they make a mess, it should be up to the child to clean it up, not their imaginary friend.
This feature was originally published in the summer edition of Healthy Child with Dr Rnaj Singh, which you can also read here!