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Page last updated at 09:03 GMT, Thursday, 13 January 2011
My pretend friend

A child playing with a teddy bear

Dr. Karen Majors
Community Psychology Service, Barking and Dagenham

It used to be thought that children with imaginary friends were in the minority. It has sometimes been assumed that children had imaginary friends because they were lonely and lacked real friends.

Perhaps this is why some parents and others may show concern when a child has an imaginary friend, particularly once they have started school, and older children and adolescents tend to keep their imaginary friends a secret.

Imaginary companions or friends have certainly been a misunderstood phenomenon. There has been surprisingly little research about imaginary friends.

Consequently there has been little information about how many children have imaginary friends, what the imaginary friends are like and why children have them.

Recent research has been providing some surprising answers to some of these questions. Firstly, there is now clear evidence that imaginary friends are a common feature in childhood development.

It is now recognised that imaginary friends are often part of normal development.

A good example comes from the United States, where pre-school children and their parents took part in a 2004 study looking at different aspects of development, including imaginary companions.

The children were then followed up after starting school, when they were aged seven years. The researchers were very surprised to find that 65% of children up to age seven currently or previously had had imaginary friends.

Like other research, imaginary friends which were based on a special toy were included. In a study in the United Kingdom, 1,800 children completed a questionnaire about imaginary friends. Forty six per cent of them reported past or current imaginary friends, including nine per cent of 12-year-olds.

Positive feature

There is a need for more research about which children have imaginary friends and why they have them. We do know that children with imaginary friends are not a homogeneous group.

Certainly, it is now recognised that imaginary friends are often part of normal development. Young children with imaginary friends are often described as sociable, imaginative children who love stories and pretend play. They enjoy playing with friends and at times when friends are not available, they call on their imaginary friends for entertainment.

Children also call on their imaginary friends when they feel upset about something that has happened or about what some one has said to them.

Little girl playing on a pebble beach
One report indicated that nearly half of UK children have had imaginary friends

Some children will talk to their friend about the problem, others will play with their imaginary friend, which takes their mind off the problem and the unhappy feelings disappear. We also know that some children who have endured traumatic life events may also draw on their imaginary companions for support.

The imaginary friends of older children and adolescents are a much more private affair. Often unknown to parents and others, although a best friend might know about their existence. Older children are aware that parents, friends and others may show disapproval.

As part of my research I interviewed school aged children aged five to eleven years and the parents of the younger children. All the children said that their imaginary friends were important and why they were special to them. I have concluded that imaginary friends are often a very positive feature in a child's life.

They provide fun, entertainment, adventures and games. They are often good, kind and helpful friends, good at listening and always available. Some imaginary friends are not always co-operative or friendly, this however seems to make them more real and interesting to the child and sometimes helps them to express their feelings when there has been a problem.

This was a small study and we do need more research.

If you are a parent of a child with imaginary friends, or if you are an adult who can remember your imaginary friends, and would like to participate, please email me for a questionnaire at k.majors@ioe.ac.uk .

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