When Imaginary Friends Come to Play

Does your child have an imaginary friend? If so, you'll be glad to know that this is a common occurrence that can actually be quite positive, according to a study published in the journal Development Psychology in 2004.

Imaginary Friends are Common

Psychologists from the University of Washington and the University of Oregon who explored this topic found that imaginary friends are far more prevalent than many experts would've expected. In fact, two-thirds of school age children have had an imaginary playmate by the time they turn 7. It's also worth noting that the concept of having an imaginary friend is almost as popular among older children as it is among toddlers.

Changing Faces of Imaginary Friends

Just what type of imaginary friend your child has can change based on her age and her development stage, the researchers also discovered. To this end, many children reported having a variety of imaginary companions. Some of them were people, while others were described as animals. In addition, some children gave human qualities to their dolls, which researchers also considered under the broader heading of imaginary friends as long as they granted the inanimate object some type of interactive properties.

A Normal Part of Childhood

 While in the past making up pretend playmates was viewed as a sign of a troubled child, now researchers believe that the practice isn't unusual or troublesome at all but is actually quite typical. In addition, having an imaginary friend can help a child enhance her verbal skills and practice interacting with others in a safe setting.  In most cases, the imaginary friends are left behind over time as children move on with their lives and gain new interests.

Other Findings

Please review some of the other highlights from the study, which include the following:

  • In pre-school children, about half of all imaginary friends are based on actual toys and dolls, while in school-age children, three quarters of these friends are invisible.
  • Imaginary companions are more common among pre-school girls than boys. However, by the time a child is 7 years old, these friends occur equally among both sexes.
  • Some children created imaginary friends that they couldn't control and who weren't very friendly.
  • Children who engage in such imaginary play seem to have a greater emotional understanding of people than their less creative counterparts.

The Logistics

To come to these conclusions, researchers interviewed 152 children and their parents about this topic, then also followed up with many of the families again three years later to see gain a better understanding of how having an imaginary companion fits into a child's broader development.





University of Washington