What Should I Do If My Child Has an Imaginary Friend?
More than half of kids between ages 3 and 8 will have an imaginary companion at some point. Here’s what parents should know.
Studies indicate that up to 60 percent of children will have an imaginary companion at some point between ages 3 and 8. These friends can be invisible beings or personalities embodied in objects like stuffed animals or dolls, and researchers believe they can teach us about children and their psychological development.
Tracy Gleason is a developmental psychologist and psychology professor at Wellesley College who’s been studying the relationships children have with both real and imagined characters.
“I think imaginary companions can teach us quite a bit about how children think about relationships. One of the things that is very difficult to figure out is what children know and don’t know about relationships with other people,” Gleason says. “Especially preschool-aged children, [who] are really just becoming involved in friendships and becoming friends themselves. And it takes a while to figure out what a friendship is and what you do and how it’s different than your relationships with, say, adults, or siblings, or other people in your life.”
Considering how common imaginary companions are, how should parents address the phenomenon? SciFri recently chatted with Gleason to learn more about what imaginary companions are and what parents should expect if their child has one.
What are the different kinds of imaginary companions?
I study two kinds. The first kind is invisible imaginary companions. They can be people, animals, monsters, mythical creatures, spirits, ghosts—you name it. I once met a child whose invisible friend was his shadow—not his real shadow, but a companion based on the idea of a shadow, because it had a life of its own (think Peter Pan). The second kind is so-called personified objects—objects that children animate and personify. These are often stuffed animals or dolls, but could include really any object, such as toy trains, blankets, action figures.
Sometimes when people talk about these phenomena, they will also talk about a third one: impersonation of characters. Not like, ‘I’m pretending to be a mommy today,’ but children who take on a role. Often that role has a different name; it might have a piece of clothing associated with it, like maybe you’re some sort of superhero and you have a cape that you wear everywhere. There are kids who will take on these roles and keep them for months on end, and only respond to the name of the character that they’re impersonating and that sort of thing.
With the invisible imaginary companion, you’re creating this ‘other’ that doesn’t have any physical instantiation. With the personified object, you’re creating this ‘other’ that is embodied in an object. And with the impersonated character, you’re creating this ‘other’ that you embody yourself.
What are some interesting findings from your research?
We found that there are some interesting differences between those first two types of imaginary companions. In particular, children often—not always—but they often create egalitarian-like relationships with invisible friends, but with personified objects, it tends to be more of a hierarchical relationship. So the child is in charge and more competent and kind of takes care of the object, whatever it happens to be.
You find some interesting differences in terms of how children think about their relationships in that the kids with the invisible imaginary companions, or the egalitarian relationships, they’re a little tiny bit ahead of their peers in terms of understanding what a friendship is and thinking about that relationship. They seem to have that figured out a little bit more. But we don’t know which direction it goes—do you create an invisible imaginary companion or an egalitarian relationship, and then that gives you a better understanding? Or do you already have a better understanding, and so you create that kind of relationship? It’s correlation.
What are some of the signs that a child has an imaginary companion?
When parents know, it’s typically because children tell them. In contrast to the stereotypical vision of an imaginary companion—there’s a child sitting around talking to the air—that really doesn’t happen all that much. Sometimes kids will talk to their objects. But much more often, the children will report on their imaginary companions to the parent. If the imaginary companion has an ordinary name, lots of parents will be like, ‘Oh who’s Steven?’ And then they’ll ask their kid’s teacher at school, ‘Is there a Steven in the class?’ and then they realize, no there isn’t, it’s an entirely made-up person. But if the made-up person has an ordinary name and does ordinary things, then it can take a while for a parent to figure out that this is actually an imaginary friend.
Why do you think children develop imaginary companions?
I’m sure there are as many different reasons as there are children. We don’t find that there is some particular thing that we can point to.
I think a lot of children create them because they’re fun. The kids who create them tend to be pretty sociable. They’re often less shy, for example, than other kids. And they also tend to be kids who are really into fantasy; they engage in a lot of pretend play, even independent of their imaginary companions. So that’s sort of the magical combination, is being somebody who loves people and who loves fantasy, and here you go—you’ve created somebody who you can always interact with, and also you have a basis for interacting with other real people in your life by talking about this imaginary companion.
I think it’s often a way for children to participate in adult-like conversation. Plus, they get to be the expert [about the imaginary companion]. When you’re 3 or 4, you’re not the expert on anything. To have this domain in which you get to be the one who has all the knowledge and information, that’s super fun. So I think that’s a lot of the appeal.
What can parents do if they think their child has one?
I sort of see it the way I see any aspect of parenting: If you enjoy it, you foster and encourage it. You might ask questions about the imaginary companion. Some parents really feel like talking about something that doesn’t exist is not appropriate, that it’s like you’re making something up. For some parents, that’s a creative storytelling kind of activity, and for other parents, it’s lies. So depending on the culture of your family and how you feel about it, you will respond in different ways. And even for those who think it’s fantastic and really entertaining, there are limits. Most imaginary companions are not allowed to come to church, or if you end up talking about it at Grandma’s house and Grandma doesn’t understand what’s going on, then that can be complicated.
Perhaps there are formal occasions where your imaginary companion cannot have a seat at the table, but maybe every day at lunch time, your imaginary companion has their own plate. It’s the sort of thing, as with everything else, parents need to decide where they want to put the limits. You can easily say things like, ‘Well, imaginary companions get imaginary food,’ as opposed to serving a plate of food for the imaginary companion.
What if a child blames the imaginary companion for something he or she did?
Again, that’s a spot where you put a limit. Most kids will try that once, and parents will be like, no. I think in those sorts of situations, if the child says, ‘So-and-so did that,’ the parent can say, ‘Well you need to clean it up, because imaginary people can’t clean up real messes.’ You don’t have to accept imaginary companions as an excuse. You don’t necessarily have to say, ‘No, he or she did not make that mess; you did’—but you certainly could. You can make sure the consequences for the mess are borne by the child.
Would you say there’s a certain age when having an imaginary companion is unhealthy?
First of all, even the littlest children understand that their imaginary companions are not real. Many, many times I have been interviewing a 3-year-old about their imaginary companion, and they’re telling me in great detail all these things about their imaginary companion and what it says and it does and the things they do together and how it looks, and about halfway through, they kind of look at me and they say, ‘You know, he’s not real; he’s just a pretend friend.’ So they know.
We study preschoolers a lot, because they talk about their imaginary companions. There’s a fair amount of evidence in the literature that children much older than preschool have imaginary companions, but they’re internal. They don’t talk about them as much. They might be a little more hesitant to tell you about it, but they do have them. And there’s evidence that kids in adolescence have them as well. I wouldn’t say that there’s a point at which it’s unhealthy. There are stories of adults in the literature who have them. The key is that they know that they’re not real.
I would worry about it if the child did not to seem to understand that it was not real, because most children are very clear on that. But if that’s the situation, then usually you’re talking about a child who has many other problems that you already know about. It’s very rare for an imaginary companion to be a signal of psychopathology.
This article has been edited for space and clarity.