My child has an imaginary companion, should I be concerned?
One aspect of children’s imaginary play is having an imaginary companion. Some parents may be wonder if this is normal and whether they should be concerned. However, it is very common, indeed, from 37% to 65% of children engage with imaginary friends, although prevalence decreases with age (Gleason, 2004). This essay will show that it is very common to have an imaginary companion and there are benefits or at least a correlation with benefits and that it is largely not a matter of concern. However, we will also discuss the cases where it can cause a problem for the child’s development. This essay will limit the topic to a 5-year-old child and evaluate it in light of key developmental psychology theories. Additionally, it will examine cultural differences in the attitude toward and occurrence of imaginary companions. Imaginary companions consist of Imaginary friends and personified objects.
Imagination is a crucial aspect of children’s development as it enables them to create and explore new worlds. Starting around their first birthday, children begin to engage in imaginative worlds, and as they progress through the preschool period, they spend increasing amounts of time in pretend play (Lillard et al., 2010). They typically start playing with imaginary friends around 2 ½ years of age (Taylor, 1999) but between 3 and 5 years old is the most likely age group (Gleason, 2004).
The phenomenon of imaginary companions was first documented in the nineteenth century by Vostrosky (1895), when the prevailing view suggested that imaginary companions were associated with personality deficits or emotional difficulties in children (Taylor, 1999). However, a shift in perspective occurred in the 1960s when scholars began recognizing the positive role of imaginary companions in child development (Cohen, 1996). Subsequently, there has been an increase in academic interest surrounding this topic (Manosevttz et al., 1977).
According to Piaget’s cognitive development theory, children at the age of 5 are in the preoperational stage (Piaget, 1952). In this stage, children engage in pretend play and gradually develop their ability to use language as a means to express their thoughts and feelings but do not yet fully comprehend that others may hold different thoughts, beliefs, or knowledge (Piaget, 1952). Imaginary companions provide children with an opportunity to practice relating and speaking to another entity and sometimes this may include their imaginary companion disagreeing or expressing a different viewpoint. Having an imaginary companion therefore conforms with Piaget’s cognitive development theory.
Erikson’s psychosocial theory suggests that children at the age of 5 are in the stage of initiative versus guilt (Erikson, 1993). He says that during this stage, children strive to develop a sense of purpose and self-confidence by taking initiative and independently planning their activities. However, they also face the potential for experiencing guilt or embarrassment if they find their actions were overly ambitious or if they encounter disapproval or criticism from others (Erikson, 1993). Interacting with an imaginary friend allows these children to exercise their autonomy and take initiative in shaping their playtime without risk. This may help to build the confidence needed to take the initiative when engaging with real friends. Again, this shows how imaginary companions conform with a developmental theory, in this case, Erikson’s psychosocial theory.
Children around the age of 5 are often seen imitating the behaviours that they have seen in their parents or other significant others. Even activities as common as pretending to pour a cup of tea for an imaginary companion is an imitative behaviour. Through their interactions with an imaginary friend, children imitate social interactions and learn from them, further enriching their social and cognitive development. This behaviour was discussed in Bandura’s social learning theory (Bandura, 1977), which emphasizes the role of observation and imitation in children’s development.
Further to the phenomenon of imaginary companions being normal, it appears that there may be a benefit from the practice. It has been found that children with imaginary companions exhibit better socio-cognitive skills and narrative abilities compared to those without imaginary friends (Trionfi & Reese, 2009; Taylor & Carlson, 1997; Roby & Kidd, 2008; Bouldin & Pratt, 1999; Gleason & Kalpidou; 2014). Yet more studies have found that engaging in play with imaginary friends appears to enhance social awareness, empathy, and understanding of multiple perspectives (Gleason, 2002; Taylor, 1999; Giménez-Dasí et al, 2014) most likely due to practicing interactions. Furthermore, it was found that, due to their imaginary friends only possessing mental attributes that were created by the child, these children prioritized mental attributes over physical appearance when discussing real friends (Gleason, 2002). A correlation between having imaginary friends and enhanced creativity has also been found (Gleason, 2002; Taylor, 1999).
Although a significant amount of research on imaginary companions has primarily focused on Western cultures, there is evidence to suggest the presence of imaginary companions in non-Western cultures (Gleason et al., 2000; Taylor, 1999).
In Western cultures, the presence of an imaginary friend is commonly regarded as a positive and creative expression of a child’s imagination (Gleason et al., 2000). It is perceived as a normative aspect of childhood development and is often actively encouraged and supported by parents and caregivers. The information gathered from the parents about imaginary companions is easily interpreted. Comparing to another culture can sometimes pose unexpected challenges.
Mills (2003) conducted a study comparing imaginary companions in the United States to India. Initially assuming a straightforward comparison, she was informed by adults in India that Indian children did not engage in solitary play and therefore did not create imaginary friends. Instead, they reported that children engaged in conversations with real but unseen companions, which were attributed to either a spiritual realm or a connection to the child’s memories from a previous life. These findings underscore the difficulties is gathering information from a different culture when something so common can be attributed to such different origins.
In Japan, the occurrence of imaginary friends is less common than the west while personified objects hold greater prominence among Japanese children (Moriguchi & Shinohara 2012; Motoshima et al. 2014). However, Kawato (2001) found that Japanese parents are more inclined to seek guidance when their children play with imaginary friends, as opposed to when they engage with personified objects. Interestingly, this discrepancy appears to deviate from the generally positive attitude of Japanese parents towards pretend play (Tamis-LeMonda et al., 1992). It is conceivable that Japanese parents specifically harbor negative perceptions of imaginary friends within the context of pretend play, while maintaining a favourable view of personified objects. Consequently, these negative perceptions may contribute to the lower reported prevalence of imaginary companions among Japanese children. The influence of cultural perception of what is normal highlights the importance of considering these differences when evaluating a child or communicating with the child’s parents.
While the phenomenon of having an imaginary friend is generally considered normative during at the age of 5, there are behaviours that may warrant concern (Gleason et al., 2000). Excessive preoccupation or fixation on an imaginary companion, if it significantly interferes with real-life interactions and relationships, may signal the presence of emotional or social difficulties (Gleason et al., 2000). When a child consistently displays a preference for the companionship of their imaginary friend over engaging with peers and the immediate social environment, it can lead to social isolation, impeding the development of essential social skills and impeding the establishment of meaningful interpersonal connections (Gleason et al., 2000; Taylor, 1999). If this is the case, it is important to consider the possibility of underlying emotional or social difficulties that warrant careful attention and comprehensive evaluation (Gleason et al., 2000; Taylor, 1999).
In addition to the above, there has been some research that revealed connections between the presence of imaginary friends during childhood and the reporting of auditory verbal hallucinations (AVHs) or “voice hearing” (Corstens et al., 2014; Fernyhough et al., 2019). These findings have raised concerns among parents who worry about the potential susceptibility of their children to develop mental disorders, such as psychosis, due to perceived resemblances between imaginary conversations and auditory hallucinations (de Leede-Smith & Barkus, 2013; Fernyhough et al., 2019). Moreover, exploring the association between imaginary companions and dissociative disorders, McLewin and Muller (2005) have discovered a higher incidence of imaginary companions in individuals who later developed dissociative disorders. However, with such a large percentage of children having imaginary companions (37%-65%) the correlation between this and mental illness may be due only to probability.
The potential for such behaviour to become problematic would depend on various factors, including the duration, intensity, and impact on the child’s overall functioning (Gleason et al., 2000).
In conclusion, having an imaginary friend in early childhood is generally considered a normal and healthy behaviour that aligns with key developmental psychology theories. Cultural differences play a significant role in determining what is considered typical or abnormal behaviour in different societies. Cultural norms and interpretations need to be taken into account when determining and evaluating the presence of an imaginary friend. While having an imaginary friend does not warrant concern, there is a small chance of potential underlying difficulties. Further assessment should consider factors such as duration, intensity, and impact on the child’s overall functioning to determine if the behaviour has the potential to become a problem in the future.
Author: Catalina Nam, B Social Work (Hons), M Couns, AMHSW.
Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, Catalina Nam has extensive experience in counselling including but not limited to: NDIS; veterans; migrants; disability; domestic violence; and seniors; and she has undertaken advanced training in Grief and Loss. Having moved to Australia from Korea in 2003, she has first hand understanding of the challenges of being a migrant.
To make an appointment with Catalina Nam, try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422.
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