Kids who have imaginary friends consider these companions to be just as real as any human friend. Is having imaginary friends healthy? Sometimes, parents get worried upon discovering that their child is hanging out with an imaginary buddy. Let me assure you that it’s very normal for a certain age. In fact, having a make-believe friend helps children develop their imagination, creativity, and social skills.
The imaginary friend I had as a kid dropped me because his friends thought I didn’t exist.
As a grown-up, you might find this quote hilarious, but believe me, this is exactly how important imaginary friends can be for kids.
My imaginary world played an important role in my personality development. I was an imaginative child, which is why it’s quite easy for me to relate to tales kids share about their naughty, creative, or obedient imaginary friends.
Being a psychologist, I have established that in order to immerse yourself into the imaginary world of your kids, you have to accept all (imaginary and personified) friends near and dear to them.
How common are imaginary friends?
Having make-believe companions is not a rare phenomenon. One study revealed that 65% of children had at least 1 imaginary friend by the time they turned 7. It’s interesting to note that this is as common among school-aged children as among preschoolers.
The researchers found that preschool girls were more likely to have a make-believe friend, but the likelihood of boys having one was the same by age 7. In 27% of the cases, the parents were unaware of the imaginary companion. Human imaginary friends accounted for 57% of the companions described, while 41% were animals. In rare cases, a make-believe friend could transform into a human, an alien, a machine, or an animal.
Is having imaginary friends normal?
Sometimes, parents don’t feel comfortable when they find out that their kid has a physically nonexistent friend. I have come across parents who confused imaginary companions with hallucinations (hearing voices or seeing things without any physical source) or feared that their kid had some psychological problem.
I always encourage parents to spend quality time with their children and observe their behavior and routine closely. If they notice any alarming change, they should not hesitate to seek expert opinion.
At the same time, it is imperative to understand that different developmental stages have different requirements. Having an imaginary companion is quite normal for children in preschool and in the early school years. In fact, psychologists now consider that having make-believe friends helps the child to develop better social and cognitive skills.
Types of imaginary friends
Children can have imaginary companions who are entirely make-believe and physically non-existent. Some children also use personifications for imaginary friends. In this case, a toy or object is imagined to have the qualities of a living friend.
You might have seen kids addressing a doll or a teddy bear by a name and explaining the personality traits of that character. The nature of the friendship might be slightly different with an imaginary character or a toy personified as a friend. I feel that children tend to be more nurturing towards personified friends, for example, a little girl might change the clothes of a doll and put it to sleep or a boy might bandage his teddy’s leg. On the other hand, a friendship with an imaginary companion can be more cordial and diverse in terms of emotional attachment.
Imaginary friends can be humans, animals, machines, aliens, or any other thing a child can imagine. Since these friends spring from the imagination, the inspiration for them could come from virtually anywhere, like a fictional story, a visit to a place, or a TV show.
I know of a child whose imaginary friend could transform into many characters, and the inspiration came from a cartoon series called Ben 10. Similarly, a child can have a hobbit or a Barbie doll as an imaginary friend.
Why imaginary friends are good for kids
Psychologists suggest that having imaginary friends is normal and generally good for children. Why do kids have imaginary friends? These companions can help kids develop many positive attributes.
Among the most commonly discussed benefits of having imaginary friends are:
1. Help with pretend play
Imaginary friends help children with their imaginative play and creativity. Research on imaginary companions suggests that such friends become a source of fun, and children always have them around to play with.
2. Better understanding of perspectives
Children gradually develop the understanding that people can have different perspectives. They learn that the same physical reality can have a different representation in the minds of different people. This concept is also called theory of mind.
Kids with imaginary friends can grasp this concept earlier and better than kids without imaginary companions.
3. Improved communication skills
Children with imaginary companions have to carry both sides of the conversation, so they build better communication skills.
They are better at conveying their messages and understanding the spoken messages of others. They have more practice initiating and maintaining a conversation and a better vocabulary than children without imaginary friends.
4. Nurturing the imagination
Some research findings support the idea that children who have imaginary friends are more creative. Imaginative play is a precursor of creativity.
Good fiction writers create fascinating characters. Have you ever considered that their skill in creating personas might be rooted in their childhood pretend play? Someone with a rich imagination and the ability to personify can also become a successful artist and stage actor.
5. Room to practice social skills
Not all imaginary companions are friendly – some can be naughty, difficult to control, and mischievous. Children get to practice social skills such as nurturing, empathy, patience, self-control, and compassion while playing with their make-believe friends.
Children with imaginary friends usually have a better understanding of how others feel and are thus better equipped with the skills required for reciprocal social interactions.
6. Enhanced self-regulation due to private speech
Kids develop an inner speech in early childhood. This private or covert speech is used to self-direct and self-regulate in task-oriented actions.
You might have observed that children aged 3-7 sometimes talk aloud to themselves while playing or doing a task.
Gradually, this private speech fades away, replaced by silent whispering to oneself. Inner speech is believed to help children with self-regulation. Psychologists suggest that kids with imaginary friends have better private speech.
7. Focus on the mental characteristics of others
Children with imaginary friends learn to focus on the emotions and thoughts of others. They tend to focus more on mental characteristics and describe their friends in terms of their feelings, intelligence, desires, and emotions.
8. Increased confidence
Having an opportunity to practice leadership skills with imaginary or personified friends helps in boosting children’s confidence. They learn to plan, direct, and manage activities independently and feel more empowered.
When imaginary friends cease to exist
Typically, imaginary friends fade as the child grows older. In a few cases, they can linger until the child’s early teen years. When do imaginary friends become a problem? As long as your kid makes real-life friends and enjoys their company, you don’t need to worry about your 10-year-old having an imaginary companion.
Having imaginary friends is quite normal for a child. It doesn’t interfere with their growth; rather, it helps with their social, emotional, cognitive, and linguistic development.