I was delighted when one of my pre-school students invited me to join her and her friend “Roberta” for tea in her classroom last week. Knowing we didn’t have a student by that name, I guessed that she was perhaps a child who was visiting our school for the day. Imagine my surprise, then, when my student sat me down and introduced me to her friend, who was supposedly occupying the empty chair next to her. “Do you see her?” my student asked, excited. “We’re wearing the same shirt today!” I sipped my pretend tea and watched my student interact with her imaginary playmate, completely engaged. At one point, “Roberta” spilled some tea and my student cleaned it up, offering a gentle yet sturdy rebuke of Roberta’s actions. I found myself completely intrigued and couldn’t wait to find out more about the thinking behind the play.
Why Do Children Have Imaginary Friends?
Overall, imaginary play is an intrinsic part of a child’s development and helps to cultivate the child’s social and emotional skills. Imaginary friends serve many purposes. For example, imaginary friends enable a child to experiment with new social roles and develop personal interactive skills. Children particularly like to act out adult roles and have their imaginary friend be the child. Besides enabling a child to develop creative games, imaginative play allows a child to practice having control over a situation.
An imaginary friend also helps a child distinguish between good and bad and right or wrong. Sometimes the child uses the friend to deflect responsibility when the child is afraid of getting in trouble. It’s common, for example, for a child to make a mistake and point to his imaginary friend, proclaiming, “She did it!” Imaginary friends allow a child to practice feeling and expressing negative emotions and work out conflicts. They also provide companionship during times of transition (a move, a baby sister or brother, or starting a new school) or when the child is alone for extended periods of time.
Sometimes, an imaginary friend might take on the characteristics of the child that the child has difficulty expressing. For example, a child might have an imaginary friend who is afraid of the dark or an imaginary friend who is a bully, which might point to an issue that exists in the child’s real world.
Is It Normal?
Though Dr. Spock believed in the forties that children developed imaginary playmates because they struggled to integrate with real ones, research in the last thirty years has proved otherwise.
Not only is it normal—65 percent of children between the ages of two and seven have an imaginary playmate—but many studies show that children who have imaginary friends are more creative, self-sufficient, and open to new experiences, develop a richer vocabulary, have an increased ability to show empathy for others, and score higher on tests of literary creativity.
Dr. Marjorie Taylor, PhD, author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them and professor and head of psychology at the University of Oregon, states that children with imaginary friends tend to be more outgoing, focused, and amenable to seeing things from another child’s point of view. She found that there were many types of imaginary companions: ordinary child, magical child, baby, older person, animal, superhero, enemy, ghost, angel, or presence. Sometimes a child has one imaginary playmate, sometimes several.
It’s debatable as to whether or not firstborns and only children are more likely to have imaginary friends. This was definitely Dr. Spock’s view in the early seventies, and a recent study at Yale University supported that theory. Yet Dr. Taylor argues, “It is not solely children who are firstborns or who have no siblings who create imaginary companions.”
Imaginary friends tend to fade away once a child enters elementary school and starts establishing more concrete relationships. Only when a child keeps her imaginary friends well into elementary school, consistently prefers her imaginary friends to interacting with real ones, or chooses to spend a lot of time alone, might it be wise to speak with school personnel or contact a child psychologist.
How Should an Adult Respond?
It’s important to be open and accepting of the imaginary friend, rather than offering judgment or trying to correct your child’s perception. Again, the existence of an imaginary playmate can offer you insight into your child’s inner world, external relationships, and personal development.
If invited to play with a child’s imaginary friend, allow the child to have control over the dynamics of how you interact. Be careful to follow your child’s lead and give him room to determine what’s real without putting your own spin on the story. Usually you’ll be asked to include the friend, whether it’s saving a seat for her in the car or offering her a plate at dinnertime.
If a child consistently uses the friend as a “fall guy” in a blame situation, it’s best to go along with the story, while taking the blame out of the situation and gently reinforcing the rules. Remember that a child’s creation of an imaginary friend is a resourceful way to develop an understanding of how to interact with others as well as how to deal with the world at large.
As for my student, we had a lovely tea together, complete with biscuits, pizza, chocolate ice cream, and bubble gum. (All imaginary, of course.) Our party got a little crowded when a few stuffed animals joined in, and it got pretty wild when the lion and the elephant got gum in their hair. But other than that, it was just another day in the life of a kid in pre-school and another lesson learned about the amazing intricacies of a child’s world.