Fred was small enough to fit in the palm of my hand and could ride around in the pockets of my and my friends’ school uniforms. He was quite a hit in my circle. An elaborate biography was elaborated, by me and my friends, that included Fred’s “cousin”, whose lengthy name included the words “Pumpernickel Bread.” It was a fun time. And at the time, I was a teenager. Was Fred a normal concept for a teen? Is it ok for children to have imaginary friends? And what purpose do they serve?
“If something is bothering you, you can control it or manipulate it in the world of pretending.”- Marjorie Taylor, University of Oregon
In researching the concept of imaginary friends, one name repeatedly popped up. Marjorie Taylor’s research interest is the imaginations and fantasies of children. Indeed, it’s a common phenomenon. Researchers like Taylor estimate that as many as 65% of all children have had imaginary playmates. There is an interesting breakdown when the imaginary friends of boys and girls are further examined; girls tended to have more opposite sex imaginary friends, boys tended to have imaginary companions who were more competent than they were.
But there are myths that surround imaginary friends. It was once believed that imaginary friends were the peers of only-children because they did not have siblings with whom to play. Clearly, we now see that isn’t the case. Only preschoolers were expected to have pretend playmates. Research has found these invisible allies in children and adolescents, with some researchers even suggesting adults may have them as well (as with several authors and their characters).
Imaginary friends were also believed to serve no significant purpose, apart from frustrating parents who were forced to set an extra place at the table, lest they endure a tantrum.
“Children who have imaginary friends are better able to take the perspective of another person” – Marjorie Taylor, University of Oregon
- children with imaginary friends are able to engage in creative and original thought and use abstract reasoning skills (the ability to analyze information and solve problems on a complex, thought-based level)
- imaginary friends may help children to better understand their emotions
- pretend play can serve as a coping mechanism
- children with imaginary friends tend to have more “mythical content” in their dreams
- children with pretend playmates have richer vocabularies, are better able to entertain themselves and get along better with classmates
When to be concerned
Some parents discourage their child from interactions with an imaginary friend. Understandably, as by definition, it’s an entity that only the child can see or hear and visual/auditory hallucinations are a symptom of childhood schizophrenia. However, imaginative play, in itself is not suggestive of mental illness. If a parent is concerned that their child’s imaginary friends are more than mere child’s play, they should consult a professional.
Most children leave their imaginary playmates behind as they grow up. In my case, Fred died one day after falling from a tree in my backyard. I probably had become creative enough. For now, enjoy your child’s pretend play, and don’t forget to set that extra place for dinner.