By Andie Stallman
You may have heard the term “imaginary friends” or talked to a child about their playmate who you couldn’t see. But have you ever wondered why children have imaginary friends, why adults don’t, and what they can tell us about a child? I want to shed some light on a phenomenon that has long been acknowledged but still needs to be fully understood.
Let’s look at the Pixar movie Inside Out and Bing Bong, the main character Riley’s imaginary friend. Bing Bong is portrayed as a wacky-looking, ambiguous animal who sacrifices themself so to save Riley’s joy. They are in our media, schools, and maybe even our past, but what can we learn that will help us better understand children’s minds, needs, and well-being.
What Are They?
First, the prevalence and even definition of imaginary friends varies widely from culture to culture. Depending on who you ask and what literature you read, people estimate that anywhere between 5% and 65% of children have an imaginary friend at one point. Moreover, much of the research that currently exists comes from Western cultures. However, non-western cultures also report phenomena that are referred to by different names but present very similarly to the Imaginary friends of Western cultures. For example, Native Americans believe children interacting with invisible beings communicate with their ancestors’ spirits. In some South American cultures, children see “Duendes,” which are elves that show up to cause mischief but are invisible to adults. Research shows that Indian parents believe their children are playing with spirits or people from the child’s past lives. In these examples, a child interacts with something the adult cannot see. However, cultural variation makes defining and identifying these instances challenging and can impact the reported prevalence of imaginary friends.
*I would like to note that I have chosen to use the term “imaginary friends” for coherence in this blog. Still, I want to acknowledge that literature and articles refer to them by numerous names, even within Western cultures.*
Why Do They Exist?
In addition to cultural differences in the acknowledgment and labeling of imaginary friends, there are a number of research hypotheses that try to explain why and how imaginary friends exist. The giftedness, deficit, and egocentrism hypotheses are three significant lines of reasoning among scholars.
Giftedness Hypothesis: This is the idea that children who have higher creativity or IQ may be more likely to have imaginary friends. This comes from research that shows a correlation between imaginary friends and more advanced storytelling skills. However, this remains a hypothesis, and these children may have more advanced storytelling skills due to their interactions with their imaginary friends, not because they are inherently more intelligent.
Deficit Hypothesis: Another potential reason for the existence of imaginary friends is the idea that these children do not have enough social interaction or require additional support. Most imaginary friends begin to present around the age of 5 or 6, which is a time when most children begin spending more of their time in school, away from their parents. Some scholars who believe in this hypothesis credit creating imaginary friends to the stress of this change and the need for additional emotional support. In this line of reasoning, imaginary friends provide comfort and companionship for lonely or distressed children. This is not to say that imaginary friends are a sign of mental health issues, as research does not find long-term negative implications of childhood imaginary friends. However, this transition can be stressful, and a child’s imaginary friend may be a helpful coping mechanism that helps them navigate the period.
Egocentrism Hypothesis: Finally, the third major theory in imaginary friend research is the egocentrism hypothesis which argues that imaginary friends are a sign of a child’s growing self-awareness. As people age, they learn that they are 1) a person with thoughts and feelings and 2) that other people are capable of thinking, feeling, and perceiving them. This process can cause stress but also curiosity and a need for exploration. Imaginary friends may be a way for children to begin learning about other people and navigate social interaction as they begin to understand it on a deeper level.
What Do They Tell Us About Our Kids?
There is a lot left to learn about imaginary friends. Still, research does point to some specific benefits and implications of their presence. First, imaginary friends can be a significant social interaction and exploration source. As both the egocentrism and deficit hypotheses allow, children (and adults) require social connections to learn and navigate life. So, in a similar way to the benefits of sibling relationships, imaginary friends are another way children can practice communicating, identifying and expressing emotions, and playing with others.
Additionally, the justification for the giftedness hypothesis is that children with imaginary friends show more advanced storytelling abilities. However, this may not be the cause of imaginary friends but rather a consequence of having one. Research shows that imaginary friends may help promote cognitive development in children, effectively improving skills such as perspective-taking, problem-solving, and social communication. Finally, imaginary friends may be a buffer to psychological problems, as some researchers feel that imaginary friends are a coping mechanism in response to trauma, stress, or loneliness. This means that a child’s imaginary friend may be helping them learn how to deal with difficult emotions and promoting their overall well-being.
What to do with this information?
It is important to continually evaluate a child’s social support network, well-being, and overall development. Imaginary friends are not a diagnostic tool for mental illness and are not believed to be an early sign of psychosis or hallucination. Experts view imaginary friends as a normal and healthy part of childhood. However, it is always important to keep healthcare providers informed and watch for other signs of distress, which may indicate they are a more serious coping mechanism.
It is valuable to understand imaginary friends because they can be a great way to learn about your child and engage with them in play. Acknowledging their imaginary friend can be a productive way to encourage your child’s play and promote their learning, creativity, and well-being.
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Meet Andie Stallman, Imagination Playground’s childhood and play expert. Stallman holds a masters degree in Child Studies and Human Development with a special focus on clinical and developmental health and psychology. She is currently conducting research through McLean Hospital on adolescent mental health as she prepares for a PhD. Additionally, Stallman has experience in school and childcare environments working directly with children and teens who have a variety of needs and diagnoses, including schizophrenia, cerebral palsy, and autism spectrum disorder. This range of experience and knowledge brings a unique aspect to Imagination Playground’s commitment to researching the importance of play and promoting lifelong well-being starting in childhood.