ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

The Function of Imaginary Friends in Childhood

Updated on September 10, 2020
Angel Harper profile image

Angel is currently a first year student at university studying Psychology.

Imaginary friends are a quintessential experience of childhood, along with folding paper airplanes and climbing trees. Although the behaviours exhibited by those with imaginary companions would be considered worrying in adulthood (although this is not always the case), it is considered perfectly normal during childhood with up to 65% of children reporting to have had an imaginary friend by the age of 7 (Taylor, Carlson, Maring, Gerow & Charley, 2004). What proves to be particularly fascinating about this phenomenon is why. Many have believed for some time that imaginary friends serve a purpose and may be the brain’s way to deal with certain environments or inadequacies that the child faces.

In the 20th century it was theorised that that imaginary friend’s function as a way to express a child’s sense of fulfilment and so assist them in overcoming traumatic events. These ideas were heavily influenced by the psychoanalytic approach to psychology which had become particularly popular in the second half of the 20th century. Psychoanalysts such as Freud regarded imaginary companions (ICs – synonymous with imaginary friends) as a hallmark for future pathological problems. It was also proposed that ICs acted as a way to express the ego ideal- their imaginary friends represent a person who is better than the child so is someone they strive to be. However, more recent research focuses on the role of competence and how such companions can enable a child to compensate for areas where they may be lacking (such as cognitive, social, or physical competence). Other potential functions include dealing with trauma, sex-role development, and creativity.

Source

Psychoanalysts proposed that imaginary friends are used to cope with traumatic events which could potentially explain the link to dissociative identity disorder (DID). Hornstein and Putnam (1992) wrote a report assessing studies on both ICs and DID; they found a much higher incidence of imaginary friends in children who later develop dissociative disorders. They also conclude that “While not all traumatised children go on to develop dissociative disorders, it lays the foundation for the development of DID in predisposed individuals”. (Hornstein & Putnam, 1992). DID has long been associated with both fantasy and trauma, with individuals developing alter egos to protect themselves. Therefore, it could be theorised that imaginary friends are an early manifestation of such defence mechanisms. However, McLewin and Muller (2006) criticise this proposal, they emphasise that imaginary friends are considered perfectly normal and common, suggesting that using them as an indication of dissociative disorders is unwarranted. In order to make more tangible claims, further research into the relationship between imaginary friends and DID is necessary.

More recent research suggests that ICs serve as a way to improve or compensate for a child’s lack of competence in social, physical or cognitive tasks. Gleason (2006) found that often imaginary friends are formed to compensate for poor social relationships. Children who personified objects were the most likely to receive negative nominations from their peers and teachers. Furthermore, Harter and Chao (1992) discovered an interesting division in types of imaginary friends. With ICs being either superior to the child in certain aspects (eg they were stronger, faster or smarter) or they were less competent than the child. The children with ICs were judged to be less competent by their teachers in comparison to their peers. Interestingly, this links in with psychoanalytical theories. ICs who are more competent act as an ego-ideal for the child; they are more competent so teach the child how to behave and provide them with something to aim for. In contrast, ICs who are less competent than the child allow them to not only feel better about their own abilities but also to teach and nurture their less able companions. One issue with this focus on competence is causality; do children develop ICs due to a lack of competence or do they have imaginary friends which consequences in social inadequacies? Regardless, research indicates that imaginary friends are a way for children to combat areas that they are not proficient in, so their companions act as either the ego-ideal or a way for them to feel more competent.

Source

Leading on from the role of competence, Harter and Chao (1992) also found gender differences which could indicate that ICs encourage gender roles based on culturally transmitted stereotypes. They discovered that girls are more likely to have imaginary friends who are less competent than themselves whereas boys are more likely to have imaginary friends who are more competent. This conforms to stereotypical gender norms as it allows girls to look after and care for their ICs and gives boys a competitive role model to look up to. Arguably however, if these gender differences are inspired by socially transmitted ideas of sex roles than perhaps this has changed along side societal opinions of gender. Coetzee and Shute (2003) replicated this study but were unable to find the same gender differences. Instead they found both boys and girls rated their companions as less competent than themselves. However, they did find gender differences in how they perceived their friend’s lesser competence. Girls were found to be more nurturing whereas boys focused comparing themselves to their ICs to make themselves look more favourable. Although there is a suggestion that imaginary friends solidify sex-role development without further research it cannot be said for certain. It could be that these nurturing or self-favouring behaviours are present before the emergence of ICs, or alternatively these gender differences may be influenced by cultural transmission which changes over time.

Another possible function of imaginary friends is the development of creativity. Hoff (2005) found that children with imaginary friends were more creative on 2 of 3 assessments of creativity. Furthermore, Myers (1979) claims that imaginary friends can also indicate higher levels of creativity in adulthood. Creativity may not be a function of ICs, rather ICs may be a product of creativity. Regardless, having an imaginary friend could be used as an indicator of future creativity.

Source

Overall, imaginary friends are a common form of play during childhood and could indicate a plethora of information about the child and their future. The potential link between trauma and ICs for instance could be used as an indicator for dissociative disorders later in life. However, as imaginary friends are such a common and mostly healthy childhood experience this would be difficult. ICs can however indicate creativity. The most popular explanation for imaginary friends revolves around the role of competence. Children who feel lonely or inadequate in some way may develop imaginary friends to help cope with their situation.

Have you ever had an imaginary friend?

See results

Bibliography

Coetzee, H., & Shute, R. (2003). "I run faster than him because I have faster shoes": perceptions of competence and gender role stereotyping in children's imaginary friends. Child Study Journal, 33(4), 257+.

Gleason, T. R. (2004). Imaginary companions and peer acceptance. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 28(3), 204–209. https://doi.org/10.1080/01650250344000415

Gleason, T. R., & Hohmann, L. M. (2006). Concepts of real and imaginary friendships in early childhood. Social Development, 15(1), 128–144. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9507.2006.00333.x

Harter, S., & Chao, C. (1992). The Role of Competence in Children ’ s Creation of Imaginary Friends Author ( s ): Susan Harter and Christine Chao Published by : Wayne State University Press Stable URL : http://www.jstor.org/stable/23087260 Accessed : 16-05-2016 14 : 19 UTC The Role of. 38(3), 350–363.

Hoff, E. V. (2005) Imaginary Companions, Creativity, and Self-Image in Middle Childhood, Creativity Research Journal, 17:2-3, 167-180, DOI: 10.1080/10400419.2005.9651477

Hornstein NL, Putnam FW. Clinical phenomenology of child and adolescent dissociative disorders. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1992;31(6):1077-1085. doi:10.1097/00004583-199211000-00013

McLewin, L., & Muller, R. (2006, March 06). Childhood trauma, imaginary companions, and the development of pathological dissociation. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1359178906000231?casa_token=kfQagTBPyRkAAAAA%3AU9Ij4Pr-wr5KvplnhqkfisuEfSzFuIEGUKWgh0HowG5tCQq9xrlA8aVVX6FRqTtfJmYDYpqTUnU

Myers, W. A. (1979). Imaginary Companions in Childhood and Adult Creativity. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 48(2), 292–307. https://doi.org/10.1080/21674086.1979.11926878

Taylor, M., Carlson, S. M., Maring, B. L., Gerow, L., & Charley, C. M. (2004). The Characteristics and Correlates of Fantasy in School-Age Children: Imaginary Companions, Impersonation, and Social Understanding. Developmental Psychology, 40(6), 1173–1187. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.40.6.1173

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Angel Harper

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Sherry H profile image

      Sherry Haynes 

      11 months ago

      If I understand what it looks like to an outsider, I believe I have seen children with imaginary friends. As you have explained it, may be that is normal for most of them. The article is informing.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      11 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      I know of friends who had ICs and mostly, it was because they were lonely. Usually, they were an only child. Your article is very enlightening.

    • Miebakagh57 profile image

      Miebakagh Fiberesima 

      11 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

      Hi, I think you mean imaginary brothers and or sisters. This is the concept on which I understood it. Besides your story seems to be a new study to me, if my words brothers and sisters were cut off. Thanks.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://corp.maven.io/privacy-policy

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)