Childhood - Parenting
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Imaginary Friends - Childhood
Is having Imaginary Friends Good for Your Child?
They’re aliens, humans, characters from fairy tales, even stuffed animals. Madhulika Varma delves into the fascinating world of children’s imaginary friends and finds there’s good news there. If your child brings them home to meet you, don’t call for the shrink, be glad you’ve been granted membership to a very secret world...that’s helping them explore who they really are. So, your child’s best friend is a beautiful princess who lives in a magic castle, or a pin Koala that lives on a pretty purple tree. And they’re all invisible.
Imaginary Friends! Is this a problem?
Relax, say the experts. Having an imaginary and invisible friend is a healthy indication of cognitive and social awareness. It is a normal part of a child’s development and the weird and wonderful pretend pals signify a very active imagination. Researchers say that pretend friends can help young children take the perspective of another individual, and pave the way for real-life interactions with other children having different personalities, and behavior. An invisible friend lets a child role play scenarios and even project his own needs, desires or feelings and thoughts in a safe, not threatening way. In addition, imaginary friends also help kids exercise control over the adult environment that can sometimes place things too far out of their reach or understanding. Parents who are uncomfortable about a child having an invisible friend should take comfort in knowing that research has consistently shown that kids know these “friends” are not real and that they will outgrow their need for such companionship with time.
Having imaginary friends is so prevalent that 65 percent of children report that by the age of 7, they have had an imaginary companion at some point in their lives, according to a new study conducted by psychologists at the Universities of Washington and Oregon. The research also indicates that having an imaginary companion is as common among school-age children as among pre-schoolers. Thirty-one percent of the school-going youngsters said they were playing with an companion when they were asked about such activity, compared with 28 percent of pre-schoolers.
Having an imaginary companion appears to be an ongoing process because a child doesn’t necessarily play with the same imaginary companion throughout childhood. Carlson said some children reported having multiple and serial imaginary companions. The number of imaginary companions described by children ranged from one to 13 different entities. “It is somewhat of a revolving door. Children are nimble in coming up with these imaginary companions and sometimes we have a hard time keeping up with all of the friends a child has,” she says. The researchers originally talked no 152 pre-schoolers between ages 3 and 4, and their parents in separate interviews about imaginary companions. The researchers also collected data on the children’s verbal ability and gave them a series of standardized tasks to assess development, or what psychologists call theory of mind.
Three years later, 100 of those children (50 girls and 50 boys) and their parents volunteered for the newly published study. The children and their parents were again interviewed separately about imaginary companions. Parents also filled out a questionnaire about their child’s personality and the children took a series of standardized tasks that measured social understanding. Children were considered to have imaginary companions if they said they had one and provided a description of it. If the companion was a doll or stuffed animal, children also had to include psychological details (such as “She is nice to me”) for it to be considered an imaginary friend. The imaginary companions described by the children came in a fantastic variety of guises, including invisible boys and girls, a squirrel, a panther, a dog, a seven-inch-tall elephant and a “100-year-old” GI Joe doll. While 52 percent of the imaginary companions that pre-schoolers played with were based on props such as special toys, 67 percent of those created by school-age children were invisible, according Carlson
The study also showed that:
- While pre-school girls were more likely to have an imaginary companion, by age 7 boys were just as likely to have one as girls.
- 27 percent of the children described an imaginary friend that their parents did not know about.
- 57 percent of the imaginary companions of school-age youngsters were humans and 41 percent were animals. One companion was a human capable of transforming herself in to any animal the child wanted.
- Not all imaginary companions are friendly. Quite a few of them were uncontrollable and some were a nuisance. The researchers were also curious to know why children stop playing with imaginary friends.
Imaginary companions are treated by children much in the same way as when they lose interest in toys or other activities,” says Carlson. “In many cases they simply go away, or children don’t remember. Other times, children replace an old imaginary companion with a new one, or they go on to friendships with real kids to meet some of the same needs.”
The researchers also looked at childhood impersonation – pretending to be an imaginary character – and found it to be almost universal. Virtually all pre-schoolers pretended to be an animal or another person, and 95 percent of the school-age children engaged in impersonation. One tantalizing finding was that school-age children who did little or no impersonation scored low on emotional understanding of other people, according to Carlson.
She says that fantasy – interacting with imaginary friends and impersonation – plays a role in child development, both cognitively and emotionally. This kind of activity allows children to manage social situations in a safe context, such as practicing how to handle conflict with something that may or may not talk back to them. Cognitively, it helps them deal with abstract symbols and thought, which leads them to abstract thought about their own identity. "Imaginary companions have had a bad rap from psychologists for a long time, and there was the perception that having an imaginary companion wasn’t healthy,” she says. “But this study shows that nearly two-thirds of children have them and the striking fact is that children of all personality styles have imaginary companions.