Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Imaginary Friends: Any in Your House?

Should parents worry about their children's imaginary friends?

"Wait," my brother shouts to my mother in his most determined voice, "George is way behind." She stops to let George catch up. On other occasions, my brother insists George be pushed on a swing or a cookie be saved for George. George, my older brother's imaginary pal, trailed him everywhere for a significant period of time. Months? Years? No one in the family can recall George's precise lifespan.

George immediately came to mind when reading a review of Marie Brenner's memoir, "Apples and Oranges: My Brother and Me, Lost and Found." What got my attention was not the palpable, lifelong conflict between Brenner and her brother but the introductory comments in Jennie Yabroff's review:

"By the time you are 11 years old, you spend one third of your time with your siblings, more than you spend with your parents, friends-or alone. (Unless you're an only-child, in which case you spend most of your time with your imaginary friends.)"

The implication of Yabroff's remark feeds the myth: Singletons have more fantasy friends than their peers with siblings and spend more time with them. Both points are unsubstantiated.

Marjorie Taylor, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them found that 65 percent of all children have make-believe friends at some point in their young lives. Taylor's study looked at children in preschool through age seven. She explodes the stereotypical view: "It is not solely children who are firstborns or who have no siblings who create imaginary companions, and the appearance of an imaginary companion in the lives of these children is not necessarily a sign of loneliness or psychological distress."

For some children, imaginary friends assist in a child's coping with a life change or acquiring a new skill. For others, their pretend friends or creatures are simply fun. Whatever purpose they serve and whatever form they take, fantasy friends indicate a fertile imagination that is as likely to belong to a child with as to one without siblings.

Based on his study of creative play in preschoolers, Yale professor emeritus of psychology Jerome Singer with research scientist Dorothy Singer wrote, The House of Make-Believe: Children's Play and the Developing Imagination. The authors confirm that the imagination required to create make-believe friends "is not the exclusive property of the ‘only' child, the isolated, the ill, or the handicapped." Children with make-believe friends tend to be more imaginative, have richer vocabularies, and are better able to entertain themselves. Singer also discovered that children with imaginary friends get along better with classmates.

These newer discoveries run counter to what Dr. Spock advised in the 1940s and into the 1970s. He claimed that children who created companions needed more time with other children or help in getting along with them. As the research mounts, the theory that only children have invisible friends to compensate for their loneliness has little credence.

In fact, Taylor points out that parents may recognize the presence of imaginary friends after the birth of a second child, generally a period in which the first or other children in the family receive less parental time. Take George. He "arrived" shortly after I did.

Related: Should You Evict Your Child's Imaginary Friend?

Copyright @ 2008, 2015 by Susan Newman

More from Susan Newman Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Susan Newman Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today