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Imaginary Companions Can Be Child's Fast Friends

Such characters are milestone in development, study says

MONDAY, Dec. 13, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Parents can stop fretting when their child sets an extra plate for an invisible friend, or shares a seemingly two-way conversation with a stuffed animal.

New research says make-believe friends are the sign of a fertile imagination and a milestone in a child's cognitive and emotional development.

The finding basically topples the view of imaginary friends as abnormal, proposed by such psychotherapists as Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget.

Sixty-five percent of children studied reported having imaginary companions at some point by the age of 7, according to the researchers at the University of Washington and University of Oregon.

After surveying 152 preschoolers, ages 3 and 4, about imaginary friends, and following up with 100 of them three years later, the researchers found that such companions are a normal, common phenomenon. And while it was previously thought that imaginary friends were the exclusive territory of younger children, the study revealed they're at least as common among school-age children (31 percent) as among preschoolers (28 percent).

"In the past, people have claimed that the preschool years were the peak time and that imaginary companions declined thereafter. However, our study shows that as many or more children aged 6 to 7 are interacting with imaginary companions as children aged 3 to 4. Parents are less likely to be aware of the imaginary companions of older children," explained study co-author Marjorie Taylor, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon.

So who and what are these magical playmates?

About half of the time, preschoolers played with make-believe pals inspired by toys, while more than two thirds of school-age children (67 percent) cited invisible friends. Also, 57 percent of the imaginary companions of school-age youngsters were humans and 41 percent were animals. And they came in all shapes, sizes, and even species. Imaginary companions, according to the study, could be invisible boys and girls, a squirrel, a panther, a dog, a 7-inch-tall elephant or a 100-year-old GI Joe doll.

Imaginary friends play an important role in a child's development, Taylor said. "What we have shown in previous work is that having an imaginary companion is associated with advanced social understanding -- being able to take the perspective of another person." Think of it as dress rehearsal for real life, interacting with all types of characters and handling conflict resolution, the researchers said.

Such friends also help children control the big-people environment that often puts things too far out of their reach or understanding.

"Engaging in imaginary play is for children a way of taking the big, complicated world outside and converting it into something they can manage," explained Jerome Singer, professor emeritus of psychology and child study at Yale University. "They may use a toy or transform some other object, like a cardboard box, into anything they want. It's an important experience for them that gives them a sense of power, and a source of fun."

Added Taylor: "Children with imaginary companions, if anything, are less shy than other children and more sociable. They do use imaginary companions to cope with various issues or problems, but this is a positive adaptive response."

Children also sometimes use imaginary companions to project their own feelings and thoughts. So it's no coincidence when a child says that Suzy Bear hates spinach, or wants another bedtime story, Taylor said.

And while it's no guarantee a child will grow up to be a genius, research does support the idea that children who have more imaginative play are more likely to be more creative, Singer said.

Still, parents are often concerned about imaginary friends. But don't worry, Singer said, because research consistently shows that kids know these companions aren't real. Besides, adults do similar things, such as talking to themselves or God, so they shouldn't think it too strange that children also engage in internal dialogue, he said.

For parents who still feel uncomfortable when their child talks to inanimate objects, take solace in knowing that kids outgrow imaginary friends, much like they lose interest in toys or other activities, the researchers said.

The study findings appear in the current issue of Developmental Psychology.

More information

For more on children and imaginary friends, visit New York University's Child Study Center.

SOURCES: Marjorie Taylor, Ph.D., professor, psychology, University of Oregon, Eugene; Jerome Singer, Ph.D., professor emeritus, psychology and child study, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.; November 2004 Developmental Psychology
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