Invisible friend, imaginary companion, play-play friend? Whatever term you use, there is little cause for concern. A fantasy friend can, in fact, be helpful for your child’s development.
Around the age of eight, I lived two rather separate lives. One in the here and now, the other locked away and deeply embedded in imagination. To my family, friends and teachers I was me. In my imaginary world I was Gillian. Gillian existed as a kind of alter ego. She was someone I could become when being me was either boring or too taxing. Gillian was my inner superhero and she served as a source of comfort in childhood. Later, as a teenager, she was a secret source of inspiration.
Do boys and girls have different ideas of imaginary companions and play?
I often catch myself watching my own eight-year-old son with interest, waiting to see if he too might mutter secret conversations to an invisible other. However, research suggests that boys are less likely to create an imaginary companion. This is because they spend a significant amount of time with the already imagined world of superheroes. Boys are not necessarily engaged in less role play than girls, says Marjorie Taylor, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. But, the difference, she observed, was that boys are more likely to act out or impersonate the character they are playing rather than treat it as a separate individual.
I watch my son at play. His imagination, like most children’s, is ripe and ready. His is imaginary play with a host of different characters. The next day, I call on a friend and ask her eight-year-old daughter an “uncontrolled research question”. “Sophie, when you are playing with your dolls, and one doll needs to say something, do the other dolls also start talking?” Sophie looks aghast. She then assures me that when dolls speak, they speak only to one another, and no one butts in on the conversation.
Companionship and nurture
Amy* and James* live in Cape Town. Their son Jack* created an imaginary companion, “Poppy”, around the age of three-and-a-half. While Amy thinks this may be the result of his only-child status, Jack’s imaginary companion mainly arrived when he was playing alone. However, the notion that an imaginary companion is created through need for companionship is not supported by research.
Amy tells of how Jack’s Poppy occasionally voiced opinion on topics ranging from toys, food and decisions in general. This did not happen often, but it does support the theory that the role of an imaginary companion goes beyond companionship and nurture. Taylor supports this idea as she describes how professionals will often use the child’s imaginary companion to help them. She reports children creating imaginary companions to deal with difficult situations. The imaginary companion may be called upon to act as spokesperson, to report a scary situation. or they may use the imaginary companion as a scapegoat.
Taylor suggests that parents “…can exploit the imaginary for their own communication purposes. If you want to know how your child feels about a sensitive topic, you might try asking about the imaginary companion’s feelings.” She suggests that it is often easier for children to express difficult things by whispering to an imaginary companion in the presence of an adult rather than talking to the adult directly.
Not one but two
Jack’s Poppy was not alone, as one day he invented Sindedode. He was, says Amy, “a kind of sidekick to Poppy.” Sindedode never benefitted from the odd family outing as Poppy did and he was only ever mentioned in reference to something Poppy was doing. Taylor reports that having two imaginary companions is not uncommon. “I know of several cases where a child has had two imaginary companions, one good and one bad,” she says. She further suggests that using two imaginary companions to deal with desirable and undesirable character traits may be helpful to the child.
And, some children create an imaginary companion to deal with deeper emotional trauma. Taylor reports of a child living in poverty creating an imaginary companion who was a rich father and bought her anything she wanted. A child with a missing parent might create an imaginary companion to fill this role and a child living in a violent home might keep an imaginary companion in his back pocket to draw upon when under threat.
Here today and gone tomorrow or next year
Around a year after Poppy arrived, Sindedode started to fade away. And, when Jack started a more formal preschool, Poppy was only mentioned periodically. Later, when the family moved to a new house, Sindedode and Poppy were left behind. Research around this supports the idea that an imaginary companion is often left behind when a significant change occurs.
A similar thing happened when Bridgette left Cape Town and moved to New Zealand. As the family boarded the plane, her daughter’s constant imaginary companion failed to board the flight. She was never mentioned again.
*Names have been changed.
Read our post on imaginary friends to find out the expert’s views.
Imagination Research – a website for anyone interested in knowing more
Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them (Oxford University Press) by Marjorie Taylor