Imaginary Friends: Should You Be Concerned?
After watching movies like The Shining, it can be very alarming to witness your child speaking to imaginary “friends.” You wonder if there is something psychologically wrong with them, or if they are not getting enough everyday interaction in their lives. Fortunately, these common assumptions are almost never true, and having an imaginary playmate can actually be a good sign of a child’s development.
Stereotypes regarding imaginary friends were propagated in the 1940s through the 1970s, by childcare guru, Dr. Benjamin Spock. In his best-selling books, he advised that children who had imaginary friends needed more time with other kids, or help getting along better with other children.
On the contrary, evidence from two studies done by developmental psychologist Marjorie Taylor and her colleagues has proven that children who have imaginary companions tend to be less shy, better able to focus their attention, and able to have more empathy.
Taylor isn’t the only one confirming this phenomenon, either. Emily Kircher-Morris, PLPC, a professional counselor in St. Louis who specializes in working with gifted and high achieving children, also believes very creative kids are likely to have imaginary friends.
“The more creative the child is, the more he or she seems to be likely to have an imaginary friend…Drabowski’s Theory of Overexcitabilities talks about how young gifted children who have overexcitability in the imaginative area are likely to have an imaginary friend,” explained Morris.
It is estimated that more than half of all preschool through elementary-aged children develop imaginary companions. There are many reasons why this happens, ranging from coping with life changes to pure entertainment.
Licensed professional counselor and registered play therapist, Pam Dyson, agrees with the reasons for “fake” friends being varied. “It’s often assumed that only children are lonely so they create imaginary friends as a way of managing the loneliness. There’s really no basis for that assumption…Some children may develop [them] as a way of coping with a life change…the majority create make believe friends because they find pretending to have a friend to be a lot of fun,” said Dyson.
Even if your child seems convinced his pal is “real”, most kids understand that these friends are just in their imaginations; however, there may be a brief stint during which your child is insistent on his friend being real.
“There is a period of ‘magical thinking’ in which children may believe in magic and fantasy. During this time when reality can be blurred, the child may maintain that their friend is in fact real,” said Cherie Baetz-Davis, a licensed psychologist in St. Louis.
Parents can learn a great deal about their children by watching them interact with the imagined friend. The child’s feelings may manifest themselves in the type of play that occurs with the friend. Sometimes children will give the friend the same feelings they are having, so it’s important to note that while observing interactions.
“It may also show the parents the extent to which their child can elaborate within the world; having many details of the imaginary friend’s life and world are typical for a highly imaginative child,” said Morris.
While it still may be a little unsettling for some parents to witness, having an imaginary friend is nothing to worry over. The only time to be concerned is when the friend is causing the child anxiety, fear, or distress.
“If the child becomes obsessed with this play or it interferes with normal social interaction, then parents might want to assess what else is going on. Typically, imaginary friends will drop off when it is no longer socially accepted by their peer group,” said Davis.
Overall, the best thing parents can do regarding imaginary friends is to relax and be as involved as the child wants them to be. “Don’t dismiss the friend as not being real and don’t make fun of it either. Have conversations with the friend and engage in imaginative play with your child,” said Dyson.