Imaginary friends: why do children have imaginary friends?

March 18, 2014

in nurturing the soul, preschool education, research

Among children aged 2 ½ to 9, about a third are likely to experience having an ‘imaginary friend’—essentially an invisible companion. When the term ‘imaginary friend’ is extended to include personified objects (such as talking teddy-bears) and extensive impersonations of characters (such as superheroes), incidence rises to nearly 65%. Imaginary friends also fairly consistently appear in popular culture: in the TV show Friends, one of the main characters, Joey, reminisces on his childhood imaginary friend who was a space cowboy; also in the children’s show, Sesame Street, Mr. Snuffleupagus is Big Bird’s giant imaginary friend; finally, in a slightly darker twist, the movie Donnie Darko follows Frank, an imaginary 6-foot-tall rabbit who gives questionable advice to the mentally-ill protagonist, Donnie, throughout the film.

Despite the high prevalence of imaginary friends among children and throughout the media, not a lot is known about why imaginary friends exist. Generally, it appears that imaginary friends are a healthy manifestation of early socialisation. Indeed, there is also growing evidence to suggest that they can sometimes play roles beyond that of a companion and may provide strength or wisdom. In some cases, imaginary friends are present in psychologically stable adults, while for others, imaginary friends are actually a manifestation of mental illness.

Early psychoanalysts tended to believe that imaginary companions were a projection of wishful achievement—that they essentially embodied the energy of children and were used to fulfil certain ambitions. Indeed, they were generally perceived in a positive light and considered characteristic of ‘gifted’ children. In opposition to this is the ‘deficit hypothesis’ which implies that children with deficits in social skills will be especially prone to adopting imaginary friends. However, empirical research has generally not supported either of these suppositions, as imaginary friends tend to appear indiscriminately to children across a wide spectrum of intelligence. Further, children with imaginary companions do not differ significantly from other children on measures of family structure, level of parental education, play styles or on the extent to which they are involved play music or read stories.

Yet, some patterns have emerged suggesting a higher prevalence of imaginary friends among girls, first-born children, only children, and the very imaginative. This suggests that the presence of imaginary friends may be related to the amount of time that children spend alone. This supposition is used to explain the evidently lower prevalence of imaginary friends among children in India who are more frequently surrounded by friends and siblings.

Some parents tend to worry about their children’s imaginary friends, fearing that they are created because their children don’t have enough ‘real’ friends. However, most developmental psychologists can agree that imaginary friends are useful tools used by children to develop social skills. In fact, most studies have found that children with imaginary friends tend to generally be less shy. Further, they report the same number of real friends as other children and also that they tend to be rated positively by both their peers and teachers.

Imaginary friends appear in many different forms, sometimes for the purpose of fantasy play and sometimes as mechanisms to ‘work through’ problems. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s argument on imagination is relevant here. He suggests that things do not have to exist in the flesh to be real—for Jung, imaginary friends are rather, “differently real.” For example, children who have recently lost a parent, especially a mother, tend to recreate their loved one as their care-taker. Eleanor Roosevelt, who lost both of her parents before the age of nine, recounted the numerous alternative fantasies she had about her life as a child. She holds that these fantasies—in which she played the mistress of a busy house or went with her father on long travels—helped her through her tough childhood and helped to teach and prepare her for her life. Her imagination provided an outlet for her early devotion to others. Beyond this, there are many children, especially those with new-born siblings, who often create younger imaginary friends who they look after, for example, by cooking for them and teaching them how to play games. These imaginative manifestations may not be visible but they provide real guidance and comfort to the children that invoke them.

Imaginary friends have also been shown to present themselves differently to girls and boys, which suggests that children may be using their imaginations to fulfil their stereotypical gender roles. Harter and Chao ran a study testing pre-school children and found that 70% of the boys created friends who were more competent than themselves and 75% of girls created friends who were less competent than themselves. These results were attributed to boys’ wish for an ego-ideal that they could identify with and girls’ wish for a companion whom they could nurture.

Although there have not been many cross-cultural studies in this field, a comparison between children in Irish-American families and children in Chinese families proposes that there may be some universal dimensions of young children’s play. Children in both cultures displayed comparable levels of pretend play, although there were some notable differences. For example, in Irish-American families, children tended to initiate pretend play more often than Chinese children. Beyond this study, there is some evidence to indicate that imaginary friends manifest themselves in different ways across different cultures. In India, where reincarnation is widely believed, there is a small percentage of children aged 3 to 6 who say they remember their previous lives. When compared to a matched sample of American children with imaginary friends, both groups had comparable psychological characteristics that suggested ‘normalcy.’ It appears that pretend play of children is displayed in different, yet healthy ways across a number of cultures. In fact, there is a historical basis for its widespread prevalence.

As early as ancient-Greece, there was a similar, even more widespread, conception of an imaginary friend. This was referred to as a person’s “genius” and was thought of as a guardian spirit. Everyone was thought to have at least one, and they were responsible for providing most creative insight. Socrates named his inner voice, or genius, ‘Daimon,’ and was purportedly guided by its wisdom. Indeed, some adults today report having imaginary friends that appear to provide a similar source of guidance or strength.

There is, unfortunately, some evidence that imaginary friends can be symptomatic of psychological disorders. For example, among adults with a diagnosis of Multiple Personality Disorder, 50% reported imaginary playmates as children. However, unlike most manifestations of imaginary friends in ‘normal’ children, these playmates generally presented themselves as alter identities of the child. Imaginary friends, when seen past childhood, are increasingly being considered as symptomatic of schizophrenia.

Despite the occasional correlation of mental illness and the presence of imaginary friends, in general this display of pretend play should be considered healthy. Children who have imaginary friends tend to show comparable social skills and do not appear to differ significantly from their peers. Even for adults, imaginary friends can provide a source of strength. There is often a stigma associated with children and adults who have imaginary friends. Hopefully, with time and enlightenment, this stigma will diminish as there is little empirical basis for it.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Tiffany January 15, 2017 at 6:14 PM

My 5 year old child often shares stories elaborate stories about a play date or being at the park or school with classmates who were not there that day or at the park at all. When present I have asked for him to show me the friend and he often points to another child and insists that this is a friends from school- which they are not.

My child is a very well liked child who is actually friends with the children he imagines or believes to be these classmates of his.

This is often confusing because he may share a massive story about his play time with them and we later find out they weren’t at the park or school that day.
He seems genuinely confused or insistent when asked about this.

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grandma November 11, 2016 at 11:47 PM

my 10 year old granddaughter is always wanting to be alone in her room . she does not socialize with other children except while at school . she did not know how to ride a bicycle until i taught her last week , NOW SHE SAID THAT SHE HAS TWO IMAGINARY FRIENDS . A LIL BOY AND A LIL GIRL . THE LIL BOY IS TELLING HER TO KILL HERSELF .
VERY CONCERNED GRANDMA

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Genius Experiment July 22, 2017 at 10:21 PM

in this case, it will be important to consult a doctor. you are right to be concerned.

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Miss Hannah Matthau April 27, 2015 at 12:04 PM

I have a few important things that I feel need to be mentioned..
For one, “Imaginary friends, when seen past childhood, are increasingly being considered as symptomatic of schizophrenia.” yes, because these require selling their drugs and thereby making them money. I see a worrying increase in mental illnesses being invented that aren’t even mental illnesses, because it’s much easier to let fear and hate control you and thereby dismiss something people are unused or uncomfortable or fearful or hateful of, dismiss it as mental illness and prescribe harmful drugs to make people be their definition of normal, than try to understand and accept and love them for who they are. For instance ADD/ADHD, and now ODD (oppositional defiant disorder, where the kid rebels. That’s a mental illness now!) Please remember that even recently, ADD/ADHD was imagination, daydreaming, and childhood sense of wonder, curiosity and realisation of how varied the world is. Bipolar was hormones. Depression was just being your own person. And rebelling was having your own mind. Now if you dare stray from the norm, you are mentally ill. And psychiatrists doing that IS a form of abuse that most often (if not always!) goes undetected and unceased because they have authority and the victim seems not to! I have been diagnosed with schizophrenia (I have exactly zero of the symptoms) as part of the abuse I have to endure, and this one drug I was prescribed and drugged with in my food unknowingly, was actually the focus of a lawsuit that it made the children who were prescribed it, mentally messed up (because they weren’t actually schizophrenic!) and even worse if they actually are mentally ill, and the company making it had to pay something around 1.1 BILLION in damages!

Second of all, and it relates to the above point, open-mindedness and inborn abilities (such as seeing spirits, knowing reincarnation, spirits, angels, etc are real, and so on, which are sometimes thought of/mistaken as imaginary friends) which we ALL had (and some of us still do) as children because we weren’t letting fear and hate rule our lives, are unfortunately still looked down upon, but tragically, people seem to be so afraid of this (because they were taught to by people who were raised that way and so on) that they’re not only hateful, but also try to stop it by drugging the people with harmful chemicals to stop or even put them in insane asylums, which is even worse than the Salem witch trials because at least upon death, the pain of most ceases. This all started with Emperor Constantine getting all mentions of reincarnation (which has been written about for at least three thousand years now) banned from the bible (about one and a half thousand years ago) because he believed it gave people too much time to seek their salvation, which took away from his control. Nowadays, I thankfully see the odd person waking up and letting go of the religion and/or society-implemented dogma. But unfortunately, I get nothing but hate and death threats daily for being different and not letting anyone brainwash me into a state of mind of fear and hate, and because of that, I could never tell anyone about certain things. Which is like Ms. Kate said above. It’s like one step forward, ten steps back. Fear and hate are processed by the same part of the brain so we overcome it and don’t let either rule our lives and thereby grow and evolve as souls, not so we let it rule our lives and thereby hurt all. A society based on fear and hate will be one quickly self-destroyed and destroying all. Being your own person and being different should NEVER be deemed a crime or a mental illness and therefore stopped at any cost!

That being said, mental illnesses do exist, but there is a black/white difference between actual mental illness, which you should not be ashamed of, and differences from the accepted norm, being called mental illness in order to control everyone into complacency. And there needs to be more people speaking out about this so people can be educated on the matter and stop propagating misconceptions and harm! And whether or not a certain imaginary friend is an indication of mental illness or not, it’s a LOT more complicated than it seems (it’s more than just if the person knows they are imaginary or not) and the matter needs to be addressed (if need be, of course), by a completely open and unjudgmental mind, which most health professionals no longer have. Fortunately, some still do, but it’s too small a minority..

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Pradnya April 23, 2015 at 10:58 AM

My 23 month old child is playing with his own image. Telling him his noise, hands, fingers, poems ect. And didn’t play with other child. He wants only his family members and his image. Its good or bad. I don’t know because having imaginary friend if ok but his is not playing with any other person. What to do. …..

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Genius Experiment June 14, 2015 at 1:49 PM

23 month old is still very young, it’s not unusual at all for a child that age only to be interested in family members, especially if he hasn’t socialised much (going to nursery etc.). See what happens over the next year or two, many children only actively seek out peers starting from 2.5 or 3 years old.

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Hesham January 21, 2015 at 5:13 AM

I have a friend who says she has a friend that only she can see. That “friend” sometimes makes her do things that could harm her like for example cutting her wrists. I know that she has had a very bad experience with her father who abused her as a little child. She is away from him now but she also says that that “friend” is just like her father and is always blaming her for stuff, therefore making her harm herself. I have read that this imaginary friend can be a representation of all the fear that she currently has which is mostly from her father. What I don’t know is if there is a way to stop it. When she does see him, she explained him as being very tall, dark figured with no face. But she does not like to talk about him for long periods of time because she claims she doesn’t want to get hurt. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance.

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Genius Experiment January 28, 2015 at 10:11 PM

Hi, I really think your friend should get professional help, a psychotherapy sounds like what she urgently needs to deal with the abuse she suffered. It sounds like her “friend” is a coping mechanism for what has happened to her, but it will take a lot of help to get to terms with it.

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Mom September 24, 2014 at 1:55 AM

My 14 yr old has had an imaginary friend for a year or 2 now. Husbands d I had a rough marriage2yrs ago and the stress might have caused this. Imaginary friend a good guy but there is a “bad” one that my son says looks like himself. Rarely comes around but my son afraid of him. No other symptoms. He’s seeping well, grenades are good…but he does worry. We don’t know what to do. We don’t want drugs he’s see. Psychologist but not sure if good book out there or website, etc. help

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Genius Experiment October 7, 2014 at 1:44 PM

i think definitely stress and tension can trigger / exacerbate these images and connection with alternative realities. it would be really important to work on tensions in your family life to limit factors that could trigger anything like this turning into a more serious form of psychosis that is also mentioned in this article.

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Deb September 15, 2014 at 7:13 PM

Interesting article. When I was small before the age of 5 I had am imaginary friend who was a little mouse I would take everywhere. If mother asked me to leave it at home I would happily to that only to start up with my friend when I got home.

A bit older I played army by myself and was the leader of many men. I didn’t think anything about it until in my 50’s. Being female perhaps it is unusual I would lead

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Korrale March 20, 2014 at 2:48 AM

James created his imaginary friend Westley when he was about 3.5. That little blue monster got trod on a lot, for he was notorious for taking random naps on the floor when James wasn’t playing with him. But James was well aware when Westley was in peril. Though many time James readily told me that Westley was not real, he still acted like he was.
I did a lot of research on this at the time. Yes, pretend friends are completely normal, but as you mentioned they could be an indication of mental illness. Something that I found really interesting was that nearly all children even as young as 3, but more commonly at 5, were well aware that their friends were not real. This didn’t stop the children leading fantasy lives with them.
I also talked to a lot of my friends and I found that the more intelligent of my friends even had conversations with their imaginary friends well into college. They are all well adjusted adults now.
What seems to set apart an older child, teen or adult, that could potentially indicate mental illness is that they can’t distinguish reality. They don’t realise that their friend is not real.

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Genius Experiment March 23, 2014 at 8:09 PM

thanks for your comment, that’s very interesting! I agree that there are some very intelligent interesting friends who report having had a very strong imagination as children! Imagination is a great thing! My daughter doesn’t have imaginary friends per se but she does a lot of imaginative play, pretending her bed or a box are her boat, using teddy bears as babies and all sorts of creative games, it is really fascinating to watch.

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Kate August 7, 2014 at 4:47 AM

Actually, I hid away my imaginary friends when I was a child so no one knew of them. I don’t think anyone in my family was aware of mine so it’s possible your daughter has one and you don’t know it. Not all kids reveal them to family or friends.

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