Many kids have imaginary friends, imaginary pets, and create entire fantastical and intricate worlds that exist only in their minds, but which feel completely real and rich. According to a developmental psychologist, Marjorie Taylor, from the University Of Oregon, around 37% of children create imaginary friends. Invisible friends can take on many forms; they can be animals, people, fantasy creatures, and can manifest as being alone or in groups. Interestingly, some research has shown that boys tend to have only male imaginary friends, while girls have imaginary friends of both sexes.
Imaginary friends are extremely viceral to children. They can easily describe what their friends look like, sound like, and what their behavior is. To dismiss them is to dismiss an important part of a child’s developing psyche. Imaginary friends can help kids to learn about the world and about relationships. They can linger around for years, becoming like a family member to the child, and can sometimes act as the child’s confidant.
Children who personify objects tend to treat them as their own children, and can be pretty bossy towards them, while children who adopt invisible friends tend to have more egalitarian relationships with them. Relationships between kids and their imaginary partners can have falling outs, and a third of kids complain that their invisible friends do things that frustrate or annoy them, such as talking too loudly or not playing with them in the ways they’d like them to (much like a real friendship).
Most kids are very much aware that their imaginary friends exist only in their minds. Out of 86 interviews with kids with imaginary friends, 77% of them reported that they knew their friend was invisible, and only one was adamant that their friend existed in the real world.
Studies have shown that not all imaginary friends disappear when a child reaches adolescence, and that they can still play an important role as the child gets older. Through an examination of adolescent’s diaries and questionnaires, it was found that the most likely adolescents to retain imaginary friends were creative as well as socially well adjusted. Their relationships with their imaginary friends also did not conflict with relationships with their peers, they simply exist as an extension of the psyche. Writers of fiction often report feeling close to their characters, much like children feeling close to their imaginary friends.
Before I began studying imaginary friends, I held the assumption that it was probably kids who felt isolated or had social problems that were more likely to have them. I had many of them as a kid, and one of them stuck with me until I was around 12 years old. In fact, that relationship was felt so real that I still remember him, Ty, fondly. We would listen to music in my garage for hours after school, and I even pretend that we were playing basketball together. But I was a lonely kid and very much an outcast at that point in my life. I had just moved to a new state, and was bullied constantly at school: Ty served as an outlet for me. However, I was also highly creative and had a vivid imagination at that age, which are attributes I have carried into adulthood.
I seemed to have been an anomaly, however, as most kids with imaginary friends tend to actually smile and laugh more around peers and be more outgoing than kids without imaginary friends. They also show more empathy, and have been shown to perform better at tasks where they must imagine how someone else might think. Children who watch less TV and use less technology are more likely to develop imaginary friends, as are only children and oldest children. Time to be by themselves serves as a golden opportunity to develop a vivid fantasy world.
Imaginary friends have shown to offer relief to some children who have experienced traumatic events, and these kids recover more quickly than those who don’t have imaginary friends. Children that experience trauma or have behavioral issues aren’t more likely to have imaginary friends, but it has been shown that they develop better coping strategies, however, they may be less likely to want to hang out with their peers. At the end of high school, the high risk children with imaginary friends in middle school became well adjusted, in multiple measurable ways.
All of this being said, parents shouldn’t discourage their children from having imaginary friends, in fact they should embrace it as an interesting and important part of their kid’s development. When kids reach adolescents, they may feel embarrassed to still have their invisible companions around, but just remember that they exist because they serve a purpose, and they just might prove helpful for your child in the future.