Imaginary Friends in Child Psychology

Instructor: David White
Imaginary friends are a normal and fascinating part of the childhood development process. Through this lesson, you will learn where imaginary friends come from, what purpose they serve, and when they can become problematic.

What Is an Imaginary Friend?

Let's say that you go to meet your friend at a restaurant and when you arrive, you see him at the table talking to himself. When you sit down you ask him who he was talking to, he tells you that he was talking to his friend Steve, who is apparently sitting right next to you, even though you can't see him. Most people would probably be concerned about such a statement, but you don't even blink an eye because your friend is only five years old.

In adults, seeing, hearing, and talking to a person that others can't see would generally be considered a sign of mental illness, but such things are entirely common in young children. These invisible companions are known as imaginary friends, and they are a regular presence in the lives of about one-third to half of all children. These friends are a product of a child's imagination, and they can come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and species. For instance, one child might invent an imaginary friend that they describe as having human characteristics, while another could have an imaginary friend who is a blue rooster that speaks only in Spanish.

What Purpose Do They Serve?

The common perception is that children invent these friends because they are lonely and don't have others with whom they can play. While this isn't entirely untrue, it is a bit of misconception; in fact, there are many different reasons why a child invents an imaginary friend.

For some children, the friend can be a coping mechanism, which is something that a person uses to manage stress, anxiety, or other strong emotions. For example, if a child has parents that are going through an acrimonious divorce, they may be struggling with the feelings of sadness, anger, frustration, or fear. In this case, the child could invent an imaginary friend with whom to talk about these feelings or share the burden.

In some cases, a child's imaginary friend can help with the development of psycho-social skills like communication. One of the most obvious signs that a child has an imaginary friend is that they appear to be having a conversation with someone, even though they are completely alone. Though not universal, what children are doing in these cases is practicing what's known as private speech. In simple terms, private speech is the self-talk that we all use to build confidence, consider problems, or calm ourselves down. For example, if you think about the last time that you found yourself getting worked up about something, maybe you quietly reminded yourself to relax and let it go. You said this out loud, but it was directed at yourself rather than another person.

Some children anthropomorphize animals or objects, giving them human characteristics.

Another common example is children that anthropomorphize, or gives human qualities and characteristics to an object like a teddy bear or a doll. Children that invent these types of playmates tend to do so as a way to experiment with relationship roles, like pretending to care for a doll or exert some type of authority.

How Long Do They Last?

Whether they are used to cope with stress or simply to entertain, imaginary friends generally serve a purpose and will usually stick around until that purpose is served. For example, a child may be playing by themselves and spontaneously invent a playmate for a short time, until they are done playing and the friend is never seen or spoken of again.

In other cases, imaginary friends can stick around for a while. If you think back to the example of a child using an imaginary friend to cope with their parent's divorce, that friend might remain until the feelings are resolved.

More often than not, imaginary friends fill in the gaps until about age six or seven, when a child begins to incorporate other people into their life through school or social groups. After this point, imaginary friends are far less common, though not entirely absent.

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