Many children have an imaginary friend. To the child the friend is real. Someone to play with, talk to, and share their innermost secrets. An imaginary friend can share a child’s world, sometimes for years.
But are imaginary friends part of normal development? For how long does a child generally have an imaginary friend? Should parents and carers be concerned?
Dr Evan Kidd and his colleague Anna Roby, conducted a study of 44 children – 22 of whom had an imaginary friend.
Dr Kidd, a Charles La Trobe Research Fellow at the School of Psychological Sciences at La Trobe University in Melbourne, was interviewed by KidsLife about the study and its findings.
What prompted the study into imaginary friends?
Children who have imaginary friends by definition, engage in lots of pretend play, which has long been recognised as being beneficial in development.
To the casual observer, pretending to have an invisible friend or giving a personality to your teddy is just something quirky that children do to amuse themselves, but psychologists see it a little differently.
Creating a whole new person with its own personality is a very sophisticated thing to do. In particular–in the case of an invisible friend–it shows that children have a developed capacity for visual imagery, an interest in how others behave, think, and feel, and, importantly, an active imagination!
Despite all of these apparent good points about imaginary friends, there has been comparatively little research on them. That’s what prompted our initial interest in the phenomenon.
What percentage of children, at what age/s, will have an imaginary friend?
The current estimate–which is based on research in the USA–suggests that up to 65 per cent of children will have an imaginary friend at one point in development.
This number probably varies from culture to culture. For instance, in cultures where children have less opportunities to engage play (e.g. for economic reasons), the estimates are a lot lower.
Children can have an imaginary friend when they are as young as two years; however, they seem to become more common at around four years. They are still common in older primary-school age children (less than 12 years), and have even been reported by adolescents.
It is likely, however, that they become a more private phenomenon as children get older, since they are unlikely to be accepted by older peer groups.
Is an imaginary friend part of a child’s normal development?
Having an imaginary friend is completely normal, and, I might add, probably a lot of fun! (Unfortunately I never had one!) The fact that they have been found to be so common means that they are a normal and healthy part of children’s development.
Does the imaginary friend contribute to a child’s communication skills?
We found in our study that children with imaginary friends performed better on a test of communication skills than children without imaginary friends.
In the study the children were asked to describe pictures to an adult, so that the adult could find the picture from an array in a picture book. We found that the children with imaginary friends could do this better in using efficient and unambiguous language.
We interpreted it to mean that the children with imaginary friends better understood what kind of information their conversational partner needed to know, which means they are more adept at taking someone else’s perspective.
Are there other development benefits for a child?
They tend to be more creative. Some other researchers have shown that children with imaginary friends use more complex language. And a team of researchers in the USA has shown that children with imaginary friends develop a ‘theory of mind’ earlier than children without them. A ‘theory of mind’ is when children understand that other people think and feel differently to themselves, which is an important milestone in development.
In adulthood, do children remember their friend?
Some studies that we have conducted with adults consistently show that just under 30 per cent of adults report having an imaginary friend as a child.
Not all of these adults remember themselves, but can report that they do because the imaginary friend has become part of the family’s history (e.g. parents or older siblings reminding them). So, probably less than half remember their imaginary friends directly.
Were there any other findings of interest that came out of the study?
Apart from the experimental results, I think there are two things to take from our research.
Firstly, we often found that parents were a little worried about their child having an imaginary friend, because they associated it with ‘hearing voices’, or other signs of mental illness. So what I’d like parents to know is that this is a completely normal phenomenon and that they should not worry about it.
Secondly, these children have very creative imaginations, as shown by the variety of friends that they invent. We had imaginary families, imaginary dogs, and even imaginary talking tomatoes! Creativity and an ability to become absorbed in imaginative worlds are attributes that will be useful to them even as adults.
Any tips for parents in ways to interact with their child and the child’s imaginary friend?
One thing I have found is that an imaginary friend is often a very private thing for a child, and children often don’t include others in the fantasy. When parents are included, it’s often when the child is telling their parents about the latest adventures on which the child and his/her imaginary friend have embarked.
So, my advice would be that if you are invited to play, then simply enjoy it and see what fun and exciting adventure your child takes you on. It might give you an opportunity to learn a bit more about your child’s special friend! If your child only wants to tell you about what his/her imaginary friend has done, then, once again, indulge your child in the fantasy.
My last tip is for parents with children who don’t have imaginary friends. I think there is a tendency when these kinds of studies are popularised for parents to think that not having an imaginary friend is therefore a bad thing. This is not the case. Imaginary friends are invented when the conditions are right for children to do so. This is mainly when children are creative and have lots of opportunities for lone play (many children with imaginary friends are only children or first born).
So, this means that children who are very creative but who have lots of other children around them might be less likely to create one, because their time is filled playing with others. This is okay because, if anything, the take home message from this research is that children should be given the opportunity to engage in unstructured play, whether that be with or without an imaginary friend!
Dr Evan Kidd is a Charles La Trobe Research Fellow, School of Psychological Sciences, La Trobe University. His current research interests include sentence processing in children and adults, the acquisition of complex sentences, the acquisition of verb argument structure and verbal morphology, how children deal with lexical and syntactic ambiguity in acquisition, and the linguistic skills of children with imaginary companions.