The real benefits of imaginary friends

Claire McCarthy MD

For a few years, my family had two extra members. Their names were Bob and Don. They entered our lives when my youngest son, Liam, was about 3 years old; he told us they were his cousins.

Their ages were a little hard to pin down; Liam didn’t really have a good grasp of numbers or the concept of age.  Sometimes they were older than Liam, sometimes they were younger. We never got detailed descriptions of what they looked like, but he told us that Bob was “good” and Don was “fresh,” meaning he had a tendency to be naughty. They had lots of adventures—they traveled the world and got into various scrapes—which, when they weren’t due to natural disasters or encounters with dangerous wild animals, were usually Don’s fault. 

Liam loved to talk about Bob and Don. We were most likely to hear a Bob and Don story when the attention had moved off Liam to one of his four older siblings—or when there was a moment of silence.

Watch a video where a Children’s patient discusses her own imaginary friends:

We listened patiently (okay, not always so patiently), and asked questions about the duo’s adventures, which didn’t always make sense, though Liam was always happy to supply additional details. It never occurred to us to point out to Liam that Bob and Don didn’t actually exist.  We all played along. It was fun.

Once somebody asked me if we worried about the Bob and Don phenomenon. Worrying hadn’t occurred to me. But as a pediatrician, I know that many families do worry when their child starts talking to the empty chair next to him.

There isn’t good data on just how many children have imaginary friends, but it’s likely many more than we realize. Marjorie Taylor, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, has done extensive research on the subject. She and some colleagues published a study in 2004 that estimated that nearly two-thirds of children have an imaginary friend at some point in their lives. They had a pretty generous definition of imaginary friends, which included talking to a stuffed animal. But the overall point is that most kids do spend some time playing with a friend who isn’t real.

It’s not just young kids who have imaginary friends, either. While most children stop playing with them as they enter school and their lives fill with other activities, the same study also found that there were plenty of children who kept their imaginary friends through a few years of grade school.

Sometimes parents worry that kids have imaginary friends because they can’t make real ones, but that’s not the case. There’s no correlation between the number of imaginary friends and real friends a child has. In fact, children with imaginary friends tend to be very sociable and have better “social understanding,” or the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

Parents also worry that having an imaginary friend means that children are confused about what is real and what is not. This isn’t true either. Children know the difference between real and imaginary friends. In fact, children in the study often stopped researchers in the midst of their questions to make sure that the researchers understood that the friends weren’t real!

Most of the time, having an imaginary friend is harmless for a child, but there are certainly exceptions. Sometimes, depressed and lonely children invent friends to better cope with depression and loneliness. It’s also true that some children with mental illness may believe that things and people exist when they don’t. If parents feel that their child is acting depressed or in a way that’s worrisome, they should call their doctor. They should also call their doctor if their child seems genuinely confused about whether an imaginary friend is real or not, or if the imaginary friend is telling them to do things they don’t want to do.  However, this is rare.

For the vast majority of children, an imaginary friend is not only normal, but also beneficial.  Having an imaginary friend gives a child a chance to use their imagination, something that is not to be taken for granted in this TV generation. Children with imaginary friends are more likely to have better verbal skills, and to be more creative. These special friends can be a great source of companionship and entertainment—and even offer a child the opportunity to practice conflict resolution.

They also give children a chance to work through confusing issues in their lives. We certainly saw this with Liam; very often Bob and Don’s adventures mirrored something Liam was curious or worried about. As he told us the stories, it gave us a chance to understand what he was thinking, answer his questions, and reassure him.

Over time, we heard less about Bob and Don. Just before Liam’s 6th birthday, I asked Liam about them.  He hesitated and looked at me a little sheepishly.  “They died,” he said.  “Really?” I said.  “That’s terrible!”  We were distracted by a visitor and didn’t finish the conversation, so a few days later I brought it up again. “What happened with Bob and Don?” I asked.

“They weren’t real,” he told me, almost nervously.  “I made them up in my head.” It was all I could do not to laugh; it was so utterly wonderful to me that he thought we’d all believed in Bob and Don.  At the same time, I was sad to see them go; it was yet another passage in the life of my youngest baby.

“That’s okay,” I said.  I took his hand and we went outside to play.