I never had an imaginary friend during my own childhood. It wasn’t until my 4 year-old daughter caught the dreaded chicken pox and developed a special little friend that I began to worry if this was a sign of a healthy imagination, a lonely little girl, or possibly both.
She appeared to contract a bad strain of the virus and was very unwell, missing two whole weeks of pre-school. During that time, we didn’t leave the house as she was feeling too tired and run-down. Within the confines of our home, I did everything I could to entertain her, but after a few days it was obvious that she was becoming bored and frustrated.
One afternoon I arrived into the living room to sit down beside her on the sofa and I was quickly informed that I was squashing Sarah. ‘Who’s Sarah?’ I asked.
‘The big girl’ she answered with a look suggesting I really ought to know. I was both surprised and intrigued, but fought the urge to ask too many questions. For a few days we were graced with Sarah’s presence as she sat with us at the dinner table and we watched cartoons together. We were scolded on a few occasions for squashing her, but as the days passed Sarah was mentioned less frequently until eventually she was forgotten entirely.
When my daughter first mentioned her new friend, I immediately began to engage her in new games and activities, thinking that her mind was lacking stimulation. Driven by concern and curiosity I decided to delve deeper and did some reading on the subject. Parents like myself may worry that the reason they have developed an imaginary friend is because they are bored, lonely or is indicative of a developmental issue, however I happily discovered that recent research does not support these notions.
The development of an imaginary friend in childhood is normal, healthy and not uncommon. According to Marjorie Taylor of the University of Oregon and Author of ‘Imaginary friends and the children who create them’, just over two thirds of children will develop an imaginary friend by 7 years of age. The number of children with imaginary friends is much higher than previously thought. Marjorie and her team describe it reassuringly as ‘taking imaginative play one step further’.
Marjorie’s research has helped disprove long-held negative beliefs and connotations regarding the mentality of children with imaginary friends, such as indicative of an emotional void or developmental anomaly. Instead they view it as a very positive and normal sign that a child is simply enjoying themselves. Marjorie is of the opinion that ‘very often adults think there is some deficit in a child’s life that sparks the creation of imaginary friends, but that isn’t necessarily true. The trauma of transition isn’t usually the main catalyst. It’s more often the free time that goes along with that transition’. Their research shows that children with imaginary friends are generally more extroverted and in no way is it connected to shyness or any form of maladjustment.
Researchers are in agreement that children with imaginary friends are less shy, and enjoy laughing and spending time with their peers. It has also been suggested that they are more empathetic towards others. Some children are more likely to develop imaginary friends, such as in families where they are the only child, the eldest child and also those children who don’t watch much television. Children are more likely to develop an imaginary friend during the pre-school years (between 3 or 4 years of age) and girls are more likely to develop an imaginary friend at this age, but by age 7 the numbers will even out.
Children who have time which is unstructured and with few or no play friends are more likely to develop imaginary friends. If a child is experiencing difficulties, having an imaginary friend may provide them some comfort (a possible example may be moving house, before the child has built new friendships). By themselves they are dealing with their fears and insecurities in their own way. These children, later demonstrate better coping strategies and can adjust more easily to new circumstances. They have shown to be highly creative with strong imaginations.
Researchers have found there are many benefits for a child in having an imaginary friend and it is psychologically healthy. Having an imaginary friend provides a child with an opportunity to play and practise dialogue through role playing, and they can practise how to form and maintain friendships and how to express themselves. The relationship can boost a child’s confidence and it also provides them with an opportunity to practise conflict resolution. Children with imaginary friends have been shown to have a healthy self-image with regard to competence and popularity.
Research by Karen Majors at the London Institute of Education has revealed that imaginary friends provide children with a safe and reliable companion during a period of their development when they are forming friendships for the first time. They also found that it provided an outlet to allow children to express anxieties and demonstrate their feelings. They discovered that the imaginary friends are not entirely forgotten and may reappear as they need them, or may be maintained secretly even up until their teenage years as a form of escapism or during difficult periods. Surprisingly, up to a quarter of children will keep their imaginary friends secret from their parents.
Children have reported imaginary friends such as little birds that sit on the shoulder, an older child and even a tiny baby doll that fits in the palm of their hand. These imaginary friends are more likely to be more competent role models for the child rather than someone who gets blamed for naughty behaviour. Ongoing work at the University of Manchester lead by research assistant Roby has redefined the idea of an imaginary friend to encompass soft toys as children often assign personalities, traits, likes and dislikes to their toys.
Parents like myself may worry about the reasons why their child has developed an imaginary friend, but the findings are altogether very positive and reassuring, demonstrating a child’s stronger emotional resilience, enhanced social skills and creativity. Children with imaginary friends have not confused reality with fantasy. When they are asked if their imaginary friends are real, the vast majority respond that they are indeed imaginary.
Jon Faull, a developmental specialist says that parents should accept their child’s imaginary friend, and at the same time try not to encourage it. You shouldn’t try to make your child forget their imaginary friend as it is generally agreed that the child will maintain their friend for as long as they need to. As long as it doesn’t spill over and affect the development of friendships with their real friends, dominate their time, or result in lots of negative behaviour for which the imaginary friend is blamed, although this is very unlikely.
Parents’ reactions to finding that their child has an imaginary friend vary from being extremely proud to very anxious. If you find that your child has developed an imaginary friend, there is no cause for concern. By asking questions you may help your child to reveal their worries and frustrations or what they love and enjoy. Psychologists agree that you should not discourage your child, and instead behave indifferently and simply allow the friendship to run its course.
Originally published in the wonderful Summer Issue of Mums and Tots magazine.