Should you worry if your child talks to an imaginary friend? Is it normal? Is it abnormal?
Imaginary companions come with negative stereotypes because in the past children have sometimes been seen as lacking friends and being withdrawn. You might be worried that the idea of having an imaginary friend is a sign of learning delay, being mentally unwell or that it could lead to problems in adulthood such as multiple personality disorder or schizophrenia. You might be concerned that children might not be able to differentiate between reality and fantasy. Do they need help?
Research evidence suggests not. The idea of a child being a social misfit or emotionally damaged because they have an imaginary friend is a yesteryear and injurious view of the world.
Work carried out by psychologists on both sides of the pond points to imaginary friends being a common feature in childhood development and are often a very positive feature too. Many young children with invisible friends are often described as socially advanced, creative children who love pretend play.
They enjoy playing with other children but when this isn’t possible they interact with their imaginary friends instead.
Having an imaginary friend is not evidence that a child is troubled but they can definitely act as a source of comfort should the need arise.
Some might talk to their imaginary friend about something that is bothering them and so use them as support. They also use their companions as testing beds to test their parents’ reactions to behaviour that might be frowned upon thus helping them learn to regulate their behaviour.
It’s clear that having imaginary friends provides a channel for children’s creativity and story making, facilitating games, fun and friendship. These handy friends also enable children to handle potentially upsetting events like moving house or going to a new school.
An imaginary friend could be a person, animal or fantasy creature a child invents and then ‘sees’ thereby assuming an air of reality. That’s immensely creative.
They may be an individual character or appear as a group with boys tending to invent male companions and girls inventing female friends.
In many cases a child will select an inanimate object and inject it with a personality and character as it were real. This might be a special toy or object that acts as a comfort blanket. Adults sometimes do the same especially in extreme circumstances.
Think about the character Tom Hanks plays in the film ‘Castaway’. Chuck Noland is the sole survivor of a plane crash where he is washed ashore on a deserted island. He learns how to survive on the island where he remains for years accompanied by his only companion, a volleyball friend he calls Wilson.
He makes a face on Wilson in order to create a person to talk to and he projects his thoughts on Wilson and develops a relationship with him. Wilson acts as his friend and confidante during his struggle with isolation. Do we laugh and say he is insane? No, we don’t we applaud and admire his intelligence and creativity to cope using an inanimate object.
The message is clear. Don’t worry!
Children that have imaginary companions might have more than one with different characteristics that serve different purposes. Some might have a degree of independence having lives away from the child, not unlike Wilson. Imaginary friends can help in moments of crisis and either protect or develop self-identity and self-esteem.
Having an imaginary friend is someone that can be always available to help overcome boredom and loneliness, provide entertainment, provide an outlet for anger and frustration or act as an emotional crutch, friendly and dependable.
Children with an imaginary friend may sometimes blame them for misbehaviour in an attempt to avoid parental disapproval.
My own daughter, Maisy, invented an imaginary friend when she was younger called Dottie who showed negative characteristics but served a positive purpose. Whatever wrongdoing my daughter was responsible for she blamed Dottie as the perpetrator and invented stories around her.
Blaming Dottie was a safe way for her to test our reactions. Some of the misdemeanours Maisy got involved her were accidents but some were intentional but Dottie was always at the centre of them. Her fantasy world was a test lab for her childhood skills.
This was an interesting time as we spoke about Dottie as if she were real too and asked Maisy to pass on a message to Dottie about what she should and shouldn’t do.
Maisy’s imaginary friend only ever really appeared when she needed someone to act as a scapegoat but Dottie served an important role in helping Maisy make sense of the world by contributing towards her understanding of social norms, rule-breaking and the love and affection of those nearest and dearest to her.
One day Dottie just left and Maisy never really said anything about her. This is a common development as children find they may no longer need their imaginary friend for comfort, support or as a testing lab. We now look back and remember together the things that Dottie did knowing full well we are all talking about Maisy’s alter ego. We don’t set a place for her at the dinner table anymore but at the time we did and it provided a glorious opportunity to discuss table manners and chat about healthy eating.
What are friends for?
It is thought that children who create an imaginary friend take on different roles when they have a conversation. They talk to the object or friend concerned and will speak out loud their thoughts just like Chuck and Wilson (you must see Castaway!).
This engages children in more complex higher order thinking as they summon up a range of responses and so flex parts of their brain that fire-up creative bubbles like a geyser.
They have to give their friend a character and fill that person with a distinct personality, traits and emotions. This act of invention is critical for brain development and all the conversations they have all spring from their own experiences, perceptions and wishes. Apart from boosting language skills the benefits of imaginary friends are many and varied. They can provide:
- a talking partner and sounding board to share and explore ideas
- a listening partner and confidant to confide secret concerns
- a good alternative to speaking to parents
- a sense of control
- a useful scapegoat
- a substitute playmate when no one else is available
- a way of overcoming boredom and loneliness
- support when dealing with bullying or friendship issues
- help to overcome shyness and develop confidence
- help to share fears and rehearse a response to an anxious scenario
- help to develop a sense of responsibility by looking after their imaginary friend.
How do you react to your child’s imaginary friend?
It could be very easy to dismiss your child’s imaginary friend as ‘just a childish phase’ but how you react is all important. Your child will certainly pick up on your responses if they are negative.
The number one consideration is to be respectful of their world: not unlike our own, it’s a fragile and delicate place that can easily be shattered by the wrong word or a body language that doesn’t give off a good vibe. Ridicule is a big no no.
Many parents will play along and join in by entertaining the idea of having an imaginary friend. Getting your child to open up about what their friend thinks is actually a back-door way into their own thinking and allows you to share options, choices and decision making. It provides you with a hugely valuable insight into their thinking and emotions.
You might be wondering ‘What if my child doesn’t have an imaginary friend? Again, don’t panic. You certainly cannot force one on your child and expect them to have one. Nothing would be worse than hearing parents in the school playground comparing how many imaginary friends their children have.
Not having an imaginary friend doesn’t mean your child is any less intelligent or creative as their talents will be elsewhere.
As children become older some may abandon their imaginary friend or they may continue their companionship but become more adept at hiding it fearing a negative response from others. If they cease to exist then children may just grow out of them.
There may be rare occasions when having an imaginary friend could and should be a cause for concern such as when a child is violent and blames it on their friend or complains that their friend worries them and won’t leave them alone.
On the whole, should we worry about children talking to imaginary friends? The answer is no, after all adults do it on Facebook all the time! There is nothing sinister about children tapping into their imaginations or adults either. If you think about it, we talk to ourselves all the time.