Imaginary Companions

Imaginary Companions

An imaginary companion is a friend whom a child creates, talks about, and interacts with on a regular basis. Young children use imaginary companions as a tool to help them make sense of the world. Their imaginary friends can provide comfort in times of stress and companionship in times of loneliness. Young children can also feel empowered through their complex fantasy play, which allows them to dictate how their imaginary friends will behave.1

Historically until the early 1990s, child psychologists thought children who had imaginary companions were troubled introverts who likely needed professional help to deal with their fantasies. As a result of extensive research studies since then, the opposite view has emerged. Children with imaginary companions have been found to be more socially skilled, to have better verbal skills, and to be more creative than children who do not have imaginary friends. Their social dramatic play allows children to adopt different roles with their imaginary friends through many different scenarios, which can help them talk through issues with their imaginary friends offering a different perspective than the child’s.2 Imagining the thoughts, actions, and emotions of their invented imaginary companions provides a context for children to understand other people’s points of view, which in turn helps to develop their concept of friendship.3

Research done in 2004 revealed that more than 65% of children between the ages of three and seven have had one or more imaginary friends. Preschool girls were more likely to have imaginary friends than preschool boys; however, by the time they were seven years of age, the ratio evened out. A child could have one or multiple imaginary friends simultaneously or a series of different imaginary friends throughout childhood. The study found that their imaginary companions were humans for 57% of the children and animals for 41%.4 Some created companions are also fantasy creatures, such as ghosts and angels. Boys tend to invent male imaginary friends, while girls create male or female friends.5 Boys’ imaginary companions are often powerful and adventuresome, while girls prefer to nurture and care for their friends. Usually oldest children, only children, and children who watch limited television are more likely to invent imaginary friends. Unstructured time alone is necessary for children to be able to fantasize and create imaginary companions.6

Sometimes young children make imaginary friends out of their dolls or stuffed animals. These friendships tend to give the children a parent-like relationship with the imaginary companion. More commonly, imaginary companions are invisible. These imagined friends have distinct personalities, and the children have clear mental images of what they look like. They are usually viewed as humans and sometimes they are given special capabilities such as being able to fly or unusual physical characteristics such as being very small. Imaginary friends who are animals may be given special abilities to be able to talk or have magical powers. Not all imaginary companions are supportive friends. Some children describe their imaginary companions as being disobedient, bossy, argumentative, unpredictable, and a real nuisance. Although children are often emotionally involved with their pretend play, research has shown that children clearly make the distinction between fantasy and reality. They readily attribute these playmates to be in their imaginations created by them.7

Although children with imaginary friends can be very focused on their fantasy play at the time, as they get older, many tend to forget that they even had them.8 By age nine most children have abandoned their imaginary friends, however, in some cases, adolescents and adults report creating or maintaining imaginary companions later in life.9 Although having imaginary friends in older stages of life is considered healthy, to avoid facing ridicule from their peers, they often keep their imaginary friends a secret.10

  • 1. Kutner, Lawrence. “Midnight Monsters and Imaginary Companions.” PsychCentral. < https://psychcentral.com/lib/midnight-monsters-and-imaginary-companions/ > 24 Aug. 2017.
  • 2. McGinn, Dave. “Hello, my (imaginary) friend.” The Globe and Mail. < https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/parenting/once-stigmatized-childhood-imaginary-friends-are-now-linked-to-a-host-of-benefits-including-heightenedcreativity/article28048417/ > 24 Aug. 2017.
  • 3. Taylor, Marjorie and Candice M. Mottweiler. “Imaginary Companions: Pretending They Are Real but Knowing They Are Not.” American Journal of Play. Summer 2008. p. 48.
  • 4. “Imaginary Friends.” GoodTherapy.org. < https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/imaginary-friends > 24 Aug. 2017.
  • 5. Kennedy-Moore, Eileen. “Imaginary Friends: Are invisible friends a sign of social problems?” Psychology Today. < https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/growing-friendships/201301/imaginary-friends > 24 Aug. 2017.
  • 6. Op. cit., “Imaginary Friends.”
  • 7. Op. cit., Taylor, Marjorie and Candice M. Mottweiler.
  • 8. Young, Lauren J. “The Truth About Imaginary Friends.” Science Friday. < https://www.sciencefriday.com/articles/the-truth-about-imaginary-friends/ > 24 Aug. 2014.
  • 9. Op. cit., McGinn, Dave.
  • 10. Romm, Cari. “How Imaginary Friends Help Kids Grow Up.” Science of Us. < http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/05/parents-relax-imaginary-friends-are-a-totally-normal-part-of-being-a-kid.html > 24 Aug. 2017.