Written by Dr. Eric Perry
“Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for thirty-five years, doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won over it.” ~Elwood Dowd-Harvey
I love old movies. One of my favorites is Harvey, a 1950’s comedy that stars James Stewart. He plays a character named Elwood P. Dowd who has a companion named Harvey. The funny and problematic part is that Harvey is a 6’3 1/2″ tall invisible rabbit. In the real world, seeing imaginary beings as an adult may be signs of a mental disorder or it can be seen as part of one’s creativity depending on the circumstances. Many fiction writers talk about the characters in their books taking on a life of their own. They are able to see the characters and easily bring life to them in their stories. At one point in history, having an imaginary childhood friend was seen as a troubling behavior. These children were seen as odd. These days there has been a shift in thinking and having an imaginary friend has become less stigmatized.
An imaginary friend is a childhood friend that is visible only to the child. In one study, 65% of all 7-year-olds reported having an imaginary friend at some point in their life. It is a separate created character that can be a person, animal, ghost, monster or angel. Some children report seeing their friend only in their heads, and others will claim to see them in physical form. Others will claim to only sense the presence of their friend. There is no specific type of child that will have an imaginary friend. By the time they reach school age both boys and girls are equally likely to have an imaginary friend. The peak age for having an imaginary friend is between three to five and they start to taper off at the age of nine. In rare cases, they are friends for life. The author Agatha Christie had imaginary friends into her 70’s. Research shows that having an imaginary companion is a normal part of childhood and may even be beneficial to some adults. The human brain is simply amazing in its ability to create.
Here are some benefits of having an imaginary childhood friend:
1. Helps develop social skills
“When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.” ~Walt Disney
By engaging in play with an imaginary friend a child can practice behavior and responding to situations they have not yet encountered. It also allows the child to practice interacting with people. A child with an imaginary friend will often adopt different roles with their friend and play out different scenarios. One of the benefits of this type of play is it allows the child to be more open to new ideas in the real world which is essential to socializing and creativity.
2. Allows child to experiment and explore the world
“The world is but a canvas to our imagination.” ~Henry David Thoreau
Having an imaginary friend provides a child with an ally to help make sense of the world. The child can create their own world and their imaginary friend can help them practice future real-life interactions in a safe way. This type of play can also be seen as a form of visualizing future events. The child can play out different scenarios and events and act out as well as verbalize how they will respond.
3. Develop language and problem solving skills
“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” ~Ludwig Wittgenstein
By practicing communication with an imaginary friend, a child can strengthen their language skills. Two of the main activities for a child with an imaginary friend is talking and problem solving. Often times, the imaginary friend will have a different perspective and the child will engage in a debate with their friend. Also, the ability to see two sides to an argument strengthens the child’s ability to problem solve and understand the emotions of another person.
4. Provides comfort
“A daily dose of daydreaming heals the heart, soothes the soul and strengthens the imagination.” ~Richelle E. Goodrich
An imaginary childhood friend may provide comfort in times of stress, boredom and loneliness. Further, if the child feels powerless they will have someone to help them feel more powerful. A child does not always get to make decisions, but with an imaginary friend they can be the boss and decide what game they are going to play and when. Children will use their imaginary friend to express feelings when they feel uncomfortable. They may express their likes or dislikes to their imaginary friend.
5. Creative Outlet
“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” ~Albert Einstein
Children who have an imaginary friend are more creative than their imaginary friendless peers. Consistently research has shown that children with an imaginary friend test higher on creativity tests than those who did not. The creativity that is unleashed in the creation of the imaginary friend spills over into other areas of the child’s life. The human brain is simply remarkable. The only limit to a child’s imaginary life is his or her imagination.
Did you have an imaginary childhood friend? If yes, how did this impact your life? Please share your story in the comments section.
The thoughts expressed in this blog post are my own and are not meant to create a therapeutic relationship with the reader. This blog does not replace or substitute the help of a mental health professional. Please note, I am unable to answer your specific mental health questions as I am not fully aware of all of the circumstances.
Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology
M.A. in Clinical Psychology
B.A. in Psychology
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