Why Do Kids Have Imaginary Friends?

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When my first son was about three years old, he had a whole crew of imaginary friends. One was named Ice Cream; one was named after my husband’s imaginary friend, Scooter; and a few were named after TV characters my son was enamored of, like Blue from “Blue’s Clues.” This posse of friends traveled everywhere my son went.

I remember once when we took a long road trip, and my son began to complain that he felt lonely, sitting in the back seat for so many hours without something to do. Then, the moment he realized his imaginary friends had come to visit, all was right with the world. “Ice Cream fits right here,” he said, pointing to a little spot of free space in his car seat.

It was then I began to realize that imaginary friends are more than just a cute, fun kid game — they serve a psychological purpose for children, and can help them make sense of, and cope with, their “real” lives.

How Common Is It For Kids To Have Imaginary Friends?

Although not all children have imaginary friends, most kids will have an imaginary friend or companion at some point in their childhood. Research out of the University of Washington and the University of Oregon, published in Developmental Psychology, found that about 65% of kids have an imaginary friend by the time they turn 7.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that the imaginary friends stage often lasts longer than most of us expect, with as many as 31% of school-age kids having an imaginary friend. In fact, the percentage of school-age kids having an imaginary friend was greater than the percentage of preschoolers, which was only 28%, according to the study.

Other interesting tidbits about imaginary friends that were unearthed by the study include:

  • Not all parents know that their kids have imaginary friends, with as many as 27% of kids having an imaginary friend that their parents were unaware of.
  • At preschool age, more girls than boys had imaginary friends, but by school-age, both girls and boys had imaginary friends in equal numbers.
  • It’s common for kids to have more than one imaginary friend, and for their imaginary friendships to evolve and change over the years.
  • The majority of children have imaginary friends who take human form (57%), but many have imaginary friends that are animals (41%), or a combination of the two.

What Is The Psychology Behind Imaginary Friends?

Children having imaginary friends used to be thought of as problematic, if you can believe it, with psychologists believing having imaginary friends could be harmful to children.

“Imaginary companions have had a bad rap from psychologists for a long time, and there was the perception that parents were getting the message that having an imaginary companion wasn’t healthy,” said Stephanie Carlson, a University of Washington assistant psychology professor, and one of the lead researchers of the Developmental Psychology study.

Carlson’s research not only refutes the fact that there is any harm in having imaginary friends, but that it is uncommon.

“This finding is fascinating in that it goes against so many theories of middle childhood, such as those proposed by Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget. Having an imaginary companion is normal for school-age children,” Carlson remarked.

Not only is it normal for kids to have imaginary friends, but the practice actually has important psychological and developmental benefits for children.

Research published in Educational and Child Psychology found that up to 60% of kids had imaginary friends, and that these companionships served five distinct purposes for children:

  • They helped kids solve problems and manage their emotions
  • They aided kids in an exploration of their ideals
  • They served as companions in the children’s imaginative/fantasy play
  • They kept kids company when they were lonely
  • They served as safe places for kids to explore different behaviors and roles

As for whether having an imaginary friend gives kids an advantage, the jury is still out on that one. There isn’t much evidence to support the idea that having imaginary friends makes you smarter or more creative, but there certainly isn’t any evidence to support the idea that having them means there is something wrong.

“Sometimes people believe that if children, particularly older children, have an imaginary friend then it means there’s something wrong — like the child is shy and doesn’t have any ‘real friends,'” psychologist Marjorie Taylor, another of the Developmental Psychology researchers, tells the American Psychological Association (APA). “But really, it’s quite normative to have an imaginary friend.”

Are Imaginary Friends Ever A Problem?

It’s quite common for imaginary friends to last well into the elementary school years, up to age 12. In the vast majority of cases, there is nothing to worry about from a mental health perspective if your child has an imaginary friend, even if they seem quite immersed in the fantasy. The truth is, children do know the difference between their imaginations and reality — it’s just that when they are in the world of their imagination, they can seem quite committed!

It’s very rare for the experience of imaginary friends to be linked to cases of psychosis, such as dissociative disorders or schizophrenia. In those cases, imaginary friendships are not the only signs of concerns you may notice. Concerning symptoms of these conditions may include paranoia, changes in sleeping or eating behavior, hearing voices, or hallucinating. Obviously, if you have any concerns that your child may be experiencing a serious psychological issue, contact your pediatrician right away.

The other times that imaginary friendships may be of concern is if the imaginary friends are scary to your child and seem to be symptomatic of an anxiety issue. Additionally, although children with imaginary friends are usually just as social as kids without imaginary friends, in rare cases, your child may use their imaginary friend as an excuse not to socialize. These are times you may consider bringing up the issue of imaginary friends with your pediatrician or a trusted child psychologist.

On the whole, though, your child’s imaginary friends are usually totally normal, wholesome, and fun. You should relish the experience while it lasts, because like all of the most wondrous aspects of childhood, your child’s imaginary friendships are fleeting.

I still remember the day when my son’s crew of imaginary friends set sail on a seashell and went on an adventure out to sea, leaving my son behind. He was ready to say goodbye, but there were tears in his eyes when he bid them adieu. And I would be lying if I said I didn’t shed a tear or two of my own.

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