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You might be concerned with your kids talking to their invisible friends, but those imaginary friends might have some positive impacts on your kids.


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Sources:
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https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Marjorie_Taylor/publication/236698210_Imaginary_Companions_and_Impersonated_Characters_Sex_Differences_in_Children%27s_Fantasy_Play/links/544ff8a90cf201441e935399/Imaginary-Companions-and-Impersonated-Characters-Sex-Differences-in-Childrens-Fantasy-Play.pdf
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[♩ INTRO ].

You might tend to think of imaginary friends as one of those quirks of childhood—something you outgrow and then pretend never happened, like wetting the bed or believing in Santa. Claus.

It’s only when kids don’t outgrow them fast enough that parents start to worry. But according to psychologists, there isn’t much reason to. Imaginary friends are totally normal, even in older kids—and contrary to the stereotype, they may indicate good social skills and a healthy creative mind.

Imaginary friends, which researchers call imaginary companions, are vivid make-believe characters that are treated as real. They’re often invisible, but they can also be a personified toy or object. And usually, they’re played with and talked to for at least several months.

Studies suggest they’re really common. Estimates vary, but one study of 1800 children found that 46% of them had one between the ages of 5 and 12. Another well-regarded study found that as many as 65% of children have had an imaginary friend by the time they’re seven.

And it’s not just preschoolers. Studies have found that elementary and middle schoolers interact with imaginary friends just as much as younger kids. And even high schoolers sometimes admit to having them.

The stereotypes would have you believe that having an imaginary friend — especially for that long — is a bad sign: that either the kids struggle socially, or that they’re mentally ill. But there’s really no evidence for that. While it can be kind of jarring to watch a kid talk to someone who isn’t there, researchers studying these children report that they usually have a good sense of reality.

Like, they’ll often make sure that the researchers know their friend isn’t actually real — which isn’t what people with delusional disorders do. That misconception might come from the fact children with dissociative identity disorder, popularly known as having “multiple personalities,” also often have imaginary companions — ones that can last into adulthood. But it’s worth remembering that less than 2% of the population has this disorder, at least in North America, which means the vast majority of imaginary friends aren’t linked to it.

So while children with certain serious disorders may create imaginary friends, that doesn’t mean imaginary friends necessarily indicate a serious disorder. Another common belief is that kids invent imaginary friends because they don’t have enough real ones. But that’s not true, either.

For example, a study done for a 1991 doctoral dissertation found that kids with imaginary friends were less shy and had more non-imagined friends than their peers. And that’s a trend that’s been seen in numerous other studies. That may be because having an imaginary friend helps kids cope with stress and conflict, ultimately improving their social skills.

Other research seems to indicate that imaginary friends aid social development by improving a child’s theory of mind. Theory of mind, which people normally develop between ages three and four, is your ability to understand that others have different thoughts and feelings than you do. For example, A 1997 study of 152 children found that 4-year-olds with imaginary companions were better at theory of mind tasks than those who didn’t have them.

So these kids were better able to understand what was happening in someone else’s head, even though they spent so much time in their own. And being better at theory of mind at age four predicted better emotional understanding at age seven. These kids were better at understanding their own and others’ emotions, including how someone’s personality might shape their feelings or how they respond to different situations.

And that’s important, because studies have found that emotional understanding is a key part of developing good social skills as well as a child’s overall psychological wellbeing. There also seem to be linguistic benefits to having an imaginary friend. Studies have shown that children with imaginary friends create richer narratives when asked to tell a story and use more complex sentence structures when they speak.

They also have a larger receptive vocabulary, which is the number of words that they can recognize and understand. If at this point, you’re thinking back to your childhood and worrying what it means that you didn’t have an imaginary friend, you can relax. You may have just forgotten yours.

Many kids simply forget about their companions when they get older. It’s also possible you didn’t have one—and that’s totally OK. Scientists aren’t entirely sure why some kids do and other kids don’t, although we do know that firstborns and kids who are an only child are more likely to have them.

Which might be another reason they’ve been linked to loneliness. Rather than loneliness, though, it might have more to do with the amount of unstructured free time kids have for imaginative play, because kids who watch less TV are also more likely to have an imaginary friend. So, it’s not a bad thing if you didn’t have one.

It’s just also not a bad thing if you did. And if you see a kid start pouring tea for a giant invisible pink elephant made of cotton candy, there’s really no reason to freak out. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych!

If you have kids or happen to know any that you want to share your love of science with, you can check out our SciShow Kids channel at youtube.com/scishowkids. There are all sorts of great videos there, and you might find that both you and the little ones learn something new. [♩ OUTRO ].