The Function of Imaginary Friends in Childhood
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.
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.
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.
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?
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/10.1037/0012-1622.214.171.1243
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