by Erica Garza
It may be disconcerting the first time your child high-fives their an imaginary friend or engages in a full-blown conversation with them, but doctors advise not to worry. Studies show that up to two-thirds of children have them, typically between the ages of 3 and 8 (although there are accounts of teenagers who continue to have them). The imaginary companions can live entirely in a child’s head or in the form of a doll or stuffed animal.
Until the 1990s, it was widely believed among child psychologists that kids with imaginary friends were socially challenged introverts who were likely to need professional intervention if their imaginary friendships persisted. Dr. Spock advised parents to employ a psychologist to figure out what the child was “lacking” if they still talked to an imaginary friend beyond the age of 4.
But new studies are emerging to overturn the stigma that doctors and parents once associated with imaginary friendships. Research shows that children with imaginary companions are more creative than their peers, have stronger social skills and may have more empathy. Instead of asking, “Why do kids have imaginary friends?” it may be more illuminating to ask, “What are the benefits of imaginary friendships?”
In 2010, Evan Kidd, a researcher at Australian National University, discovered that adults who had imaginary friends as children scored higher on creativity tests than those who did not. This echoed a 2005 study in the Creativity Research Journal, in which researchers found that children who had imaginary friends were more creative than their peers. Researchers have also found a link between kids who invent imaginary worlds and adults who become innovators and inventors. In the World Play Project, Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein found that about a quarter of the MacArthur Fellows they studied (“Genius Grant” recipients) had invented imaginary worlds as children.
Stronger Social Skills
Because children with imaginary friends adopt various roles and play out different scenarios, they tend to foster better social skills. On this correlation, University of Oregon psychologist Marjorie Taylor said, “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.”
However, there are cases when imaginary friendships can go too far. According to Johannesburg-based psychologist Dr. Janne Dannerup, if the imaginary friend is the child’s only friend or if the imaginary friend is causing the child to engage in destructive behavior, a parent should seek professional help. The imaginary friendship may also be a way for the child to escape from emotional or sexual abuse, so it’s important that parents assess whether or not there’s something more serious going on.
A 2000 study of 78 preschoolers found that children with invisible friends were more likely to treat them like real friends, while kids who personified objects tended to take on more of a nurturer role. Taylor’s research shows that both boys and girls can develop empathy and caregiving behavior by fostering their imaginations.
Conflict Resolution Skills
Having an imaginary friend can also help a child develop conflict resolution skills and deal with stress and anxiety, claims psychologist Dannerup. “An imaginary friend provides the child with a risk-free forum for examining and adjusting to major life changes.” Children who lose a family member, for instance, may often cope with and potentially resolve their grief by continuing to speak to their deceased family member. Paired with relaxation techniques, encouraging a child to use their imagination this way can help them through difficult life transitions.
When Imaginary Friends Are a Sign of Anxiety
If your child has an imaginary friend in addition to anxiety or attention-deficit symptoms, talking about their imaginary companion may amplify their symptoms if they feel judged or criticized. But if you approach the subject with an open mind, you may out more about why they feel the need to have an imaginary friend and what you can do about it together.
According to Kimberly Eckert, a registered psychologist in Calgary, sometimes children create imaginary friends can be a sign that the child is lonely or attempting to self-soothe during a big transition like moving, attending a new school or another event that may arouse anxiety. Many professionals say that imaginary friends disappear naturally by the time kids enter school, but if your child still has theirs by grade one or two, you should check if your child is dealing with social challenges. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA), having an imaginary friend may be a sign of an anxiety disorder. Other signs to look out for include:
How to Support Your Child
If you find that your child’s imaginary friend is a sign of anxiety, see how Brillia’s five pillars can help soothe your child, from controlling their screen time to ensuring they have proper rest and a healthy diet. You may also consider having them take Brillia, a homeopathic tablet that has been shown to help relieve symptoms of anxiety.
Alternatively, you may find that their imaginary friend can actually be the antidote to that anxiety. According to Helen Shwe Hadani, Ph.D., head of research at the Center for Childhood Creativity at the Bay Area Discovery Museum, adults will want to be mindful not to discourage kids from pretend play, imaginary friends or make-believe worlds or they may risk disrupting their creative development. Remind them (and yourself) that there’s nothing wrong with having a rich imagination. Maybe they’ll even invite you along on their next adventure.
Erica Garza is an author and essayist from Los Angeles and a mother of one. She holds a master's from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in TIME, Health, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Women's Health, and VICE.