If your young child’s best friend is invisible, is that
cause for concern? According to child psychologists, the answer is “no”—and
most parents seem to agree.
In a survey presented at a January meeting of the British
Psychological Society’s Division of Educational and Child Psychology, 88
percent of parents said they didn’t see any problem with their children having
imaginary playmates. To the contrary, they believed that their children
benefited in a number of ways from having a pretend friend to pal around with.
The Upside of Invisible
“Our results showed that imaginary friends provided an
outlet for children’s imagination and story making, facilitating games, fun,
and companionship,” said study author and educational psychologist Karen Majors
in a statement
about the survey.
According to Dr. Majors, many parents in the study also gave
examples of how imaginary friends helped their children cope with life events,
such as moving to a new house or going on vacation. Plus, younger children
often used imaginary friends to test how far they could push the rules with
their parents, as in “I didn’t eat the cookie; the flying unicorn did.”
Invisible pals are more common than you might think. In another
study, developmental psychologist Marjorie Taylor at the University of Oregon
studied more than 200 three- to six-year-olds. Twenty-eight percent of the
girls and 10 percent of the boys had an invisible friend. When kids whose
imaginary friends were stuffed animals, dolls, or other toys were added to the
mix, over 30 percent of children had some type of imaginary playmate.
Some parents worry that this type of behavior may signal
that a child is emotionally distressed or has trouble relating to real
children. Happily, that doesn’t seem to be the case for most kids. According to
Taylor, youngsters with imaginary friends actually tend to be less shy and
more outgoing than other children. And while children sometimes use imaginary
companions to deal with problems, they also invent pretend friends simply
because it’s fun.
Young kids with imaginary friends get to stretch their
imaginations and practice new social and cognitive skills through make-believe
play. As a result, researchers have found that they tend to be precocious at:
Telling richly detailed stories
Seeing things from another person’s perspective
Focusing their attention
There’s also good news for those of us who, as adults, still
fondly remember an invisible pal from early childhood (hello, Mr. Groundhog). Research suggests that
children with imaginary friends may be more likely to grow into creative,
All in all, your child’s imaginary friend is someone you
might want to welcome into your home.