Imaginary friends can help primary school children process emotions, test out new ideas and examine the consequences of bad behaviour, according to new research.
Academics from the University of London's Institute of Education questioned 265 parents about their children's imaginary friends and presented their findings at the annual conference of the British Psychological Society's Division of Educational and Child Psychology.
The researchers found that two-thirds of the children with imaginary friends were girls, and that oldest and only children were the most likely to have such friends. Middle children were the least likely. Almost two-thirds of children had more than one imaginary friend, with many collecting a gang of three or more. While these friends were mostly human, some were animals. Others had magical properties.
All but a tiny fraction (0.4 per cent) of imaginary friends had emerged by the time children were seven years old; 42 per cent had appeared by the time the children were two years old, and 82 per cent by the time they were 3.
Almost 90 per cent of parents felt that their children's imaginary friend supported fantasy and creative play, as well as language development. For example, the parents of nine-year-old Amy told the academics: "Amy is very creative: she writes a lot of stories and reads a lot. Badger disappeared with her ability to read books and write stories - I think he was there to help her with story-making."
Other parents suggested that imaginary friends provided a guaranteed playmate at a time when the real-life version might not be available. Two-year-old Phoebe's parents said that her invisible pet dog, Billy, "usually makes an appearance at the dinner table... He sniffs and tickles her toes. I think he was invented to have fun with."
More significantly, interacting with their imaginary friends often enabled the children to make sense of events in their non-imaginary lives. Six-year-old Claire, for example, used her friends Ponkele and Pankele to test-run new ideas.
"We would hear about them at the beginning of anything new," her parents said. "For example, the first few times we went camping or to the beach, Claire would describe in detail where Ponkele and Pankele were, what their tent was like. But as the novelty and perhaps anxiety around the experience waned, they would be forgotten."
Indeed, some of the children learned to cope with difficult situations by working through them with imaginary friends. This was particularly true of significant life changes, such as moving house, starting school, gaining a new sibling or losing an older relative.
Lydia, for example, had an imaginary dog friend, Beaky, who in turn had a pet cat. Beaky's imaginary pet died not long after the flesh-and-blood cat belonging to Lydia's grandparents passed away. "Lydia dealt with it all by playing it out in Beaky's world," her parents said. "It was her way of letting go of a cat who meant a lot to her in the real world."
Similarly, when one of her great-grandparents was ill, Olivia would tell her parents about her imaginary friend, Lala, who had a sick grandmother. She would talk about "how Lala and all Lala's family and friends felt about it", her parents said. "It's almost sometimes as though Olivia is talking about herself in the third person."
Alternatively, children used their imaginary friends to test parental boundaries. For instance, four-year-old Ellen talked about her naughty friend Sinnia, watching to see how her parents reacted to different forms of misbehaviour.
Meanwhile, three-year-old Alex would regularly counter parental admonitions with statements about his imaginary friend, Maxi, such as "Maxi's mum lets him do it" or "Maxi's mum doesn't wash her hands after going to the bathroom".
The academics conclude: "Children's imaginary friends... helped children make sense and cope with events in their lives."
Parents have expressed concern about the effect that imaginary friends may have on children's ability to form real friendships at school, academics have found.
Researchers from the University of London's Institute of Education discovered that one in eight parents thought there were disadvantages to having an imaginary friend.
"At one time, Saskia spent so much time playing with Miss Pink that she didn't invest much time in her real-life friendships," one parent says. But, she adds: "As Saskia's confidence has increased over the last year or so, the time she spends playing with Miss Pink has reduced."
Parents were also concerned about people's potential responses to an imaginary friend. And these concerns were not limited to other children. "Other parents may think it's odd," one respondent says. "They often assume that my child is lonely."
Another says: "Parents at this school think he is in foster care, because of his casual references to his new - imaginary - family."
Some parents insisted that they were unconcerned about the presence of an imaginary friend in their household. But this was qualified with reference to their child's young age. "The implication... is that some parents might well be more concerned if... they were still around when their child was older," the researchers say.
But many saw the imaginary friend as a helpful parenting aid. One talks of holding races between her son and his imaginary friend, to see who can get dressed most quickly in the morning. Another says that discussing her son's imaginary friends successfully distracted him when he was tired after a long walk.
And Mark's parent says of his son's long-standing imaginary friend, Muddle: "I feel he added to both our lives. He was fun to have around, loved to join in with any games, was not grumpy or bad-tempered. I missed him when one day he suddenly left."
Majors, K. and Baines, E. (2013) Does Your Child Have an Imaginary Friend? A paper delivered at the British Psychological Society's Division of Educational and Child Psychology annual conference.
Dr Karen Majors, assistant programme director of professional educational psychology training, Institute of Education, University of London.
Dr Ed Baines, senior lecturer in psychology of education, Institute of Education, University of London.
British Psychological Society.