worry when your child starts talking to the air? Or to teddy? And how should you
writes Caroline Deacon
It’s only in recent times that people began to regard imaginary friends as something
unique to childhood. When society believed that ghosts and angels lived among us,
the idea of an invisible companion was not seen as unusual. Throughout history, what
we would today call an ‘imaginary friend’ was often thought to be a
supernatural creature or spirit, and adults as well as children would
interact with these invisible folk.
As society became secular, and as our understanding of mental illness as pathology
grew, the idea of talking to people who don’t actually exist became viewed as odd.
It’s now not unusual, or unreasonable, for parents to feel worried about their children’s
What we need to remember is that children are more flexible, more
imaginative and less rigid about the difference between reality and
fantasy than adults, so they are open to more possibilities. Experts
now regard imaginary friends as a normal part of growing up.
Why my child?
There’s no particular kind of child who will develop an imaginary
friend, although it’s more common with girls than boys. Research also indicates that
imaginary friends are more likely to appear to the oldest child in the family, or
to only children. Another interesting finding is that children who don’t have as
much screen time are more likely to create imaginary friends, suggesting that perhaps
it’s the unstructured time alone that gives them the opportunity to invent one. Fiction
writers will often talk about their characters as if they’re real. Apparently, they
are also more likely to have had imaginary friends as children. Although there might
a stigma attached, it not impossible for normally functioning adults
to have invisible friends, and it is now known that adolescents will
sometimes invent a friend to talk to in addition to their own real friends!
What form do they take?
We’re all aware of children interacting with toys such as dolls and teddies, chatting
to them and behaving as if they were real. Creating an invisible friend involves
a similar mental process.
Children often don’t mention their companion to their parents, simply because they
don’t see them as unusual – as something that merits discussion. For the child, the
invisible friend is normal.
One of the key differences between personified objects (dolls or teddies treated
as real) and truly imaginary friends is the type of
relationship your child might have with each of them. Invisible friends tend to be
treated as equals, more like peers: they might argue, be uncooperative, or they might
be supportive. Teddies and dolls tend to be babied, on the other hand, giving the
child the chance to try out a parental or caring relationship.
Children can usually describe an invisible friend accurately and
consistently, and these friends can be around for some years. But
the friends are not always visible, even to your child. Although most children will
be able to see their companions, some children say they can only see them in their
heads, while others say they can sense a friend’s presence but not see it.
Imaginary friends take many forms. Some are human, some are
animal, still others are a complete product of a child’s imagination.
They could be a sole friend or part of a group, male or female, though research suggests
that boys tend to invent male friends while girls are more flexible.
A friend in need
Here are some key ways your child’s imaginary friend can support them:
• Helping them to construct new concepts about the world.
• Helping them to practice play.
• A way to try out conversations.
• A comfort when stressed.
• Companionship when lonely.
• Someone to blame.
• Someone to boss around when children feel helpless.
• As mentors for older children, motivating and encouraging them in school work.
• They can act as a social conscience, just like Jiminy Cricket does for Pinocchio.
Should parents worry?
When an imaginary person joins your family, there is no reason to worry. These new
additions are not a sign that your child is lonely or having problems. In fact, if
they do start to have problems, an imaginary friend can often be a great help.
Research suggest that children who create imaginary friends tend
to be more outgoing, more resilient, and have more empathy than other children. They
also tend to engage in more sophisticated pretend play, which is known to be helpful
to children’s emotional and intellectual development.
Psychologists believe that an imaginary friend will allow your child to try out new
scenarios and to experiment with how to behave in
different social situations. As imaginary friends are usually around the same age
as your child, they create an opportunity for children to try out things they want
to do themselves.
A part of the family
If and when an imaginary friend joins your family, it’s fi ne to show an interest
but don’t try to steer things. Imaginary friends should not be allowed to take over
family life, or become an excuse for misbehaving.
Although children do know the friend is not real, the emotions they experience are
real. Children will feel genuinely upset if things go wrong for their friend – if
for instance you inadvertently sit on what you thought was an empty chair but was
in fact occupied by said friend. So try not to be dismissive or impatient, but see
friend as a useful additional member of the family – one who could be hugely helpful
in times of stress. Remember, one day the friend will leave and you will probably
be sad to see them go!
Vicky’s four-year-old daughter Clementine has nurtured a family of imaginary pet
crocodiles since she was two-and-a-half years old.
Vicky relates their story.
‘Originally there was one adult, then a baby arrived, then the crocodile ‘got married’
and now there are 12 baby crocodiles who go to pre-school hanging off Clementine’s
scooter. Occasionally they are naughty and mum and dad have to tell them off. The
youngest is called Slow-Slow because he’s the smallest and can’t run as fast as the
others. Nowadays, Clementine mostly talks about him. He seems to find life quite
difficult, and if only one
crocodile accompanies the family on outings, it tends to be Slow-Slow.
I don’t really remember how it began: I think Clementine just started talking about
her friend the crocodile. She couldn’t talk very well at the time: she’s had speech
therapy since, so it’s been a good way of encouraging her to speak. I think the crocodiles
are mostly just part of her imaginative play. But they tend to go with her to pre-school
and anywhere new, so I wonder if she finds them helpful in situations that might
be stressful – almost like a distraction.
When Clementine first started at pre-school, it was the original crocodile who went
with her. He was often naughty and constantly had to be told to stop eating her lunch
or the pre-school snacks, so I think she was using him to work out social rules.
As time went on, he became better behaved. She did say a while ago she was going
to have to teach them how to line up for school so they could start reception with
She describes them very accurately as if she can see them, and we talk about them
as if they’re real, but she is clearly aware they don’t exist. I’m very fond of them.
I haven’t the slightest idea why they’re crocodiles. It seemed an odd choice as I
don’t think we even had any books about crocodiles. It seemed to come out of nowhere.’
Caroline Deacon is author of Your Toddler’s Development (Hodder).
Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Green is a novel narrated by an imaginary
friend to an autistic boy – recommended.