Children’s Imaginary Friends

You may have seen, or want to see, the 2019 comedy-drama film JoJo Rabbit, about a Hitler Youth member who has an imaginary friend in the form of Adolf Hitler. It was nominated for a raft of awards in the 2020 awards season and won a BAFTA for Best Adapted Screenplay. This week’s blog post is written by Year 3 Early Childhood Studies student Wendy Darrall, who is considering the role of children’s imaginary friends. 

When I was young George used to get me into trouble all the time. The only thing is George didn’t exist, he was my imaginary friend. Do you remember having an imaginary friend when you were a child? Is it wrong for children to have imaginary friends? It is common for children to have imaginary friends; over 67% of the children have had, or have, an imaginary friend or companion (Pearson et al1999). What is an imaginary friend or companion? They are “characters that a child plays with and talks to over a period of several months and even years in some cases, the child that plays with the imaginary friend sees them as a real person” (Svendsen, 1934)Gopnik (2016, p. 169) says that imaginary friends are a great way for children to play and develop their imaginations. 

Having an imaginary friend is not a new phenomenon. Burnham (1892, p.212) was one of the first researchers to talk about children not only seeing imaginary people, but also animals, birds, and other such creatures. He said some develop an imaginary family of brothers and sisters with which they develop close bonds who they play with and have many conversations. Therefore, having an imaginary friend to play with can enrich a child’s playtime. It certainly did with mine, George would keep me entertained for hours and I never felt lonely or afraid. 

What children most commonly have imaginary friends? 

Children who have imaginary friends are generally the oldest in the family or are only children (Gleason et al, 2000). However, in my case I was the middle child, I had an older sister and a new baby brother. Many people and researchers are not sure what makes a child invent an imaginary friend or companion but the general consensus is that if a child has an imaginary friend, it is good for them. Playing with an imaginary helps children develop and capitalize on their relationships with their peers and parents. Research has shown that some children who have these friends or companions are more socially interactive and also have a richer language engagement when speaking and explaining things to other people compared to children who do not have imaginary friends (Trionfi and Reese, 2009; Roby and Kidd, 2008).  

How can having an imaginary friend help a child? 

Majors (2013) argues that having an imaginary friend or companion can prove beneficial to some children. It can help them to overcome loneliness and boredom and can also at times be a supportive tool to help children who are shy. George certainly helped me overcome my shyness and not always in a good way. After discovering George, I started to answer back to my teachers and parents, this happened after my baby brother was born because I felt left out. Having an imaginary friend or companion is a really good way for children to enact fantasy play as it helps them develop their brain development, social and emotional skills (Kitson, 2010, p. 108).  

Historic views of imaginary friends and their critics 

Piaget (1962, p.131) said of children who have imaginary friends “the child has no imagination and what we ascribe to him as such is much more than a lack of coherence”. This was a view held by many psychologists of that period of time. Historically many researchers and parents held the view that having an imaginary friend was a form of mental illness. This was certainly true of my parents when I started talking about George and occasionally having screaming outbursts when my Mum nearly accidentally sat on him. I am sure they thought that I had gone totally mad. However, current researchers and doctors are trying to dispel this myth and stigma of mental illness being related to having an imaginary friend (Kidd, 2009). This view is clearly stated by Taylor (2016) who said: “They thought these children were weird, smart but socially troubled or shy, whatever, but they got this totally wrong”. 

What do the parents think? 

How do parents of children with imaginary friends or companions react to their children playing with their imaginary friends? Most parents of children who have imaginary friends believe it helps support their child in fantasy play (Majors and Baines, 2017). They also say that it is good for their children as it is someone for their child to enjoy being with. 88% of parents spoken to about their children’s imaginary friends or companions stated that they didn’t see any harm in children having an imaginary friend. However, 4% of parents who were questioned about imaginary friends or companions believed it might have harmful effects on children by leading them into troubling situations. It is true that some people may find their child having an imaginary friend unsettling (Gopnik, 2016, p. 169)Kitson (2010, p. 108) also said that it was good for adults to join in with children’s fantasy play with the child’s imaginary friend as it will help their children develop a deeper level of interaction when they are left to play on their own. I must admit that after Mum nearly sat on George she would always check to see if he was anywhere about and she stopped telling me to stop talking to myself. She would join in too with the play by laying a place at the table on my birthday so that George had a seat of his own. 

Some people have negative views of imaginary friends 

The only negative side to a child having an imaginary friend is when a child is insecure within their family dynamic and doesn’t quite fit in with their peers. This type of insecure child will develop an imaginary friend who has a more outgoing personality than they do. Some children who have suffered some form of trauma such as a death of a relative may make their own imaginary friend or companion die so that they can grapple with the irreversibility of death (Gleason, 2017). Some children may create an imaginary friend when circumstances change within the family, an imaginary friend who always makes the child misbehave. This was what happened with my imaginary friend George. I used to blame George for my bad behaviour because he used to encourage me to do naughty things. This was because my parents had a new baby and I was trying to find my new place in the family, from being the youngest child for four years to becoming the middle child. I behaved badly and blamed my imaginary friend because I was angry with my parents  

How long do imaginary friends last? 

The average length of time that a child has an imaginary friend is about three years (Nicholson and Townsend, 2010, P. 210). Imaginary friends are more common in girls than in boys and they generally have a friend that is the same sex as them, however, this is not always the case. Some children pick their imaginary friend who is a gender they feel most comfortable with (Nicholson and Townsend, 2010, p. 210Ames and Learned, 1946, p.155). This was the case with myself, I was picked on by girls at school so I thought a boy imaginary friend would be better as he probably would not pick on me. George was with me for over six years from the age of three and a half until I was ten. 

The time to say goodbye to George 

Do imaginary friends or companions die? Most researchers who questioned children as to whether their imaginary friend died, were informed by some children that their friend could not die because they came from the world where nobody died (Kastenbaum and Fox, 2008). However, it was also found that some children do have imaginary friends that die this does sometimes coincide with a family member or friend that has died (Gleason, 2017). As with all good things they come to an end. George finally left me when I was ten, we were moving to a new house. We were moving to somewhere I had lived before and had managed to create some good friendships there. I didn’t kill George off he just disappeared one day when we arrived at our new home. But, to this day I still remember George and how he used to get me into all sorts of trouble.  

If you are interested in knowing more about imaginary friend there is a really good book by Taylor (1999) called Imaginary Companions and the Children who create them

Thank you Wendy for that enlightening article about children’s imaginary friends. Did you have an imaginary friend when you were younger? What benefits or drawbacks do you think they might bring? 

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