How Imaginary Friends Help Kids Grow Up

Photo: Courtest of Disney/Pixar

In a movie stuffed full of emotional moments, perhaps nothing about Inside Out packs more of a feelings punch than Bing Bong. Once the imaginary friend of Riley, the girl whose mind plays host to all the movie’s action, he spends his days deep in the recesses of her memory, mostly forgotten but willfully believing that she’ll call him up again one day.

Bing Bong (spoiler!) eventually disappears completely, in the most heart-wrenching death Pixar could have possibly dreamed up. Until relatively recently, though, the loss of an imaginary friend wouldn’t be considered something worth mourning. As a recent Science Friday article noted, they were once considered a sign of something unhealthy, or even sinister:

Historically, many researchers and parents thought that imaginary companions were harmful or evil, and were a sign of a social deficit, demonic possession, or mental illness. For instance, at the University of Alabama’s Knowledge in Development (KID) Lab, lead psychologist Ansley Gilpin recently heard of a case where a parent thought her daughter might have schizophrenia. It turned out that the child just had an imaginary friend.

The stigma, as the anecdote about Gilpin illustrates, is still alive and well, but it’s fading. Over the past several decades, as Science Friday also recently documented in a series of episodes on the subject, researchers have established imaginary friendship as perhaps psychology’s most delightful area of study. And perhaps more importantly, they’ve discovered that having an imaginary companion isn’t abnormal or unusual – and living in an imaginary world might even help kids develop valuable skills for the real one.

In other words, for concerned parents who might want to see it spelled out: An imaginary friend is nothing to worry about. First of all, they’re incredibly common — by some estimates, 65 percent of kids have had an imaginary friend by age 7. And kids know they aren’t real; researchers today believe these made-up companions aren’t an indication of loneliness or a deficit of social skills so much as they are a normal way for kids to exercise their imaginations.

In fact, the ability to create characters can begin in infancy, as babies learn to imitate the traits of those around them. “If a mother raises her eyebrows and puffs out her cheeks to make funny faces, pretty soon a baby can imitate this in a playful way,” Yale psychologist Dorothy Singer, who pioneered imaginary-friend research in the 20th century, said in a Journal of Play interview. “[This] is really a forerunner of symbolic or pretend play. It shows that a child is curious and is ready to imitate sounds and actions of the adults around him,” a skill which can later morph into the development of an entirely new persona.

And past research has shown that kids who create imaginary friends may even enjoy some cognitive and emotional benefits. “In a lot of ways they’re really similar, but when we do find differences, they tend to show an advantage for kids who have imaginary friends,” says University of Oregon psychologist Marjorie Taylor, the author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. “They’re sociable kids, they’re less shy than other children. There are some studies that show they have enhanced social understanding — they’re better able to take the perspective of someone else in real life.” (It bears noting that these links are correlations, not causations — scientists don’t know if kids who already have these traits are then more likely to create imaginary friends, or if the act of having an imaginary friend in turn spurs the development of certain skills.)

And while it’s rare, even healthy adults can have imaginary friends, either creating new ones as they age or maintaining characters they made up earlier in life. “If you read the autobiography of Agatha Christie — she wrote this autobiography at age 70 and she still had them. She liked them better than the characters in her novels,” Taylor says. “I’m not worried by imaginary friends whenever they happen.”

Or however they happen. Imaginary-friend world has no rules, and even some of the most well-known examples of imaginary friends operate on slightly different principles: Calvin had Hobbes, a real stuffed tiger with a not-so-real inner life, while Big Bird had the invisible Mr. Snuffleupagus (before Sesame Street’s producers decided to make him visible, anyway). The strictest definition of an imaginary friend is a completely made-up, invisible being, but some researchers also include anthropomorphized objects, like a stuffed animal with its own distinct personality.

“A lot of children take an object and they give it a personality, they give it a character, they talk to it, they listen to what it has to say,” Taylor says. “And I wouldn’t want to say those kids aren’t interacting with an imaginary friend.” (But, she adds, the object’s character has to be fixed — if a child gives a single teddy bear multiple personalities depending on the situation, it doesn’t qualify as an imaginary friend.) Meanwhile, a small 2000 study of 78 preschoolers found evidence for key differences between the two types: Children with invisible friends were more likely to treat them as they would real friends, while kids who personified real objects tended to take on more of a nurturer role.

Taylor, who has developed a taxonomy of imaginary friends based on descriptions she’s collected over the years, wrote in a 2003 paper that while fully made-up companions are occasionally superheroes or ghosts, most often they take the form of animals or people. Within those categories, though, there’s a pretty wide variety. Animals can be magical (like Dipper, “an invisible flying dolphin who lives on a star”), and people can be much younger, much older (like Nobby, “ an invisible 160-year-old business man who talks to the child in between trips to Portland and Seattle”), or peers with unusual traits (for example, Taylor wrote, “Baintor is a tiny completely white person who lives in the light of lamps, Jerry lives in a secret vault, the Skateboard Guy lives in a boy’s pocket”).

And, sometimes, imaginary friends can be made-up extensions of real people. One girl she studied, Taylor recalls, had an imaginary playmate she named Fake Rachel, after a friend of hers. “She’d come home and Rachel wasn’t there, so she played with Fake Rachel,” she says. “And Fake Rachel lasted a long time, probably longer than the real Rachel, in the child’s life.” Imaginary companions aren’t strictly friends, either; in her research, Taylor has seen kids who make up boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives, pets and mentors. Any relationship that exists in the real world, in other words, is fair game.

One challenge in studying imaginary friends, though, is that it’s hard to know if the concept has always been a part of the earliest years of life. Studying Historical information on imaginary friends is scarce, in part because childhood as we know it is a relatively recent idea. “The view of childhood as a time for growth and development did not evolve before the 19th century, and it was not before the mid-20th century that children began to be seen as having special needs and desires such as play and imagination,” reads a 2006 history of research on imaginary friends, published in the Journal of Genetic Psychology. “Because so few sources are available, early conceptions regarding pretend companions are sketchy.” And it’s difficult to determine which of those early conceptions can be translated into modern terms — in earlier periods, children’s (and adults’) imaginary friends may have been described as spiritual or supernatural entities, like demons or guardian angels.

Today, cultural factors may influence how and how many kids bond with imaginary figures. Recall the 65-percent figure — that’s American kids. By contrast, in a British study of 1,800 kids between the ages of 5 and 12, only 46 percent said they’d ever had an imaginary friend. Past research in India and New Guinea, meanwhile, has noted that the concept of imaginary friends doesn’t seem to exist. And, anecdotally, a former student of Taylor’s who lived in Istanbul, she says, once mentioned that in her experience, imaginary friends were rare in Turkey — or perhaps, she hypothesized, kids just weren’t as open about having them. Even if these reports aren’t big enough to speak for a country’s worth of children, they hint that the imaginary-friend experience isn’t a blanket one.

Even within one specific culture, that experience may change as kids age. What’s seen as normal and cute in a kindergartener, after all, can be seen as strange and worrisome in a middle schooler. A 2013 study of kids aged 5–11 found that as they aged they became more likely to keep their imaginary friends a secret, to avoid facing ridicule from their friends and worry from their parents – which likely skews the numbers of just how common imaginary friends really are. And some studies are based on adult self-reports of imaginary friends they had as kids, which, as Bing Bong could attest, has its own problems: Depending on the person, these companions could stay with us throughout our lives, even after they’re relegated to memory, or they could disappear completely once they’re no longer needed.

How Imaginary Friends Help Kids Grow Up