Imaginary friends

Children depend on them longer than we think


Dave Whitaker


If Mr. Harnchin and Mr. Gambino had not been there that day, the truth may have never come out. I was crouched behind a thick, green hedge at the edge of our yard when I heard the scream. The rock I’d thrown had made a direct hit.

"Move!" a heavy voice scolded me. Around the hedge I ran. Sprinting toward the tearful moan, I could feel warm breath over each shoulder. Mr. Harnchin and Mr. Gambino were at my side.

When we reached my little sister, she was sprawled on the sidewalk. Thick red blood bubbled from a small, round hole at the top of her head.

Harnchin and Gambino, forever decked in dark black suits—Gambino with a matching top hat—pushed my forearms under her small frame. Together, we carried her up the front walkway to the house.

"Oh my! What happened?" the sweet, middle-aged babysitter asked as she plucked my 4-year-old sister from my arms, rushed her into the kitchen and gently set a wet dish towel on the bloody wound.

"I didn’t mean to throw it," I stuttered. "I mean, I didn’t mean to hit her. I was just trying to scare her. I mean, surprise her."

Of course Mr. Harnchin and Mr. Gambino were there that day. They were there everyday. Seeming sometimes like a hefty pair of high-level bodyguards, and other times like overgrown playmates, they were with me on almost every adventure of my feverish childhood. From as far back as I can remember, to about age 7, they were my best friends.

My imaginary best friends.

According to a study published last year, imaginary friends are pretty common—65 percent of the kids surveyed reported having one. And not just preschoolers. Six- and 7-year-olds have imaginary friends too, the study found.

Although great minds such as Sigmund Freud considered it abnormal for kids to interact with pretend friends and some parents might worry about these invisible people and their influence, psychologists say they can actually help kids cope with boredom and transitions, as well as stimulate cognitive and emotional development. So, it’s OK for parents to humor a child with an imaginary friend, say experts. But, like almost anything else a child dives into, there are limits to what’s healthy for them.

Playing along

In good times and bad, I never hid Harnchin and Gambino. Everyone knew them—my parents, my four sisters and two brothers, the neighborhood kids, even my preschool teacher.

To an extent, they all played along. No, my mother never went so far as to pack them a school lunch, but everyone knew Gambino was the shorter one with the mustache and top hat, that Harnchin was taller and more serious. They resembled Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie if they had somehow transformed from Muppets into men. Italian men…in retro suits.

Were Harnchin and Gambino my alter egos? Or were they simply Bert and Ernie climbing out of the tube to continue the fun when the TV was dark? On the day of the rock-throwing incident, they apparently felt compelled to serve as my conscience.

"That’s not a bad observation," says Frances Stott, a licensed clinical psychologist and dean of academic affairs at Chicago’s Erikson Institute, a graduate program for child development.

"In general, imaginary friends provide companionship, but they can serve many functions," says Stott. "A lack of playmates, or a change in the family—like a move—can precipitate an imaginary friend. They can be a coping mechanism for that change, and can help a child develop his or her own self-awareness and even self-criticism. An imaginary friend can give a child a stronger sense of control."

The recent study, conducted jointly by the University of Oregon and the University of Washington, described imaginary friends as  "powerful tools" for young children, providing them an ear to talk to about troubling things and giving children a place to explore the issues in their lives.

While the study acknowledges that children with and without imaginary friends are generally the same, those with pretend companions—some children have more than one—tend to be better at seeing things from other people’s perspectives.

The big surprise in this study found that children ages 6 to 7 are just as likely to have imaginary friends as 3- and 4 year-old kids. Parents of older children with imaginary friends may not be aware of them, perhaps because these children sense that their parents would not approve.

In the past, it was believed that the preschool years were the peak time imaginary friends were revealed and that, like a favorite toy, they were essentially discarded shortly thereafter.

According to one of the study’s researchers, it’s likely that imaginary friends never fully desert an individual but, instead, morph into different forms. She is currently conducting a study on novelists and their relationships with the characters they create.

It’s positive—mostly

In most cases, parents of children who create their own characters have nothing to worry about, Stott insists. "It’s really a wonderful thing because an imaginary friend can play such a positive role in cognitive and emotional development. This is something to enjoy, the same way that you watch your child pretend or play in the blocks corner."

What if your child throws the blocks and blames his imaginary friend for the dangerous deed? That can simply be a sign that he understands the difference between right and wrong but isn’t ready to assume full responsibility for his actions.

If shifting responsibility to the invisible man is a pattern, or if a child seems virtually unreachable when engaged with his imaginary friend, Stott suggests that parents consult their pediatrician. The same is true if a child with an imaginary friend shows no interest in interacting with other children his age.

"If a child is past age 6 and is still not easily talked out of some of those negative behaviors, then it could be a sign that something’s not right," says Dr. Lori Walsh, a pediatrician with Glenbrook Pediatrics. "It could be psychological. It could be fear. It could even be a sign that a child’s parents are controlling and an imaginary friend gives him some control, some life of his own."

Parent’s role

Typically, however, she says these behaviors are still something that can be moved along by parents. "When a child blames his friend for something he did, it’s important for parents to basically say, ‘We know it didn’t happen that way, but we still love you.’ They need to keep reinforcing this, using it as a learning tool for next time," she says.

For children over age 6, parents might also establish ground rules that set limits on behavior relating to an imaginary friend, according to Walsh. "A pediatrician can help in this process and, of course, should be able to determine if a particular behavior is a potential problem or nothing to worry about."

Most often, she says, it’s nothing to worry about. "Sometimes parents feel funny about going on with the show, and they really just need to hear that it’s normal. Overall, kids who have imaginary friends are showing real good signs of complex thinking because they’re already able to integrate feelings and thoughts."

Mr. Harnchin and Mr. Gambino faded into the depths of my mind long ago. I never really looked back to consider the role they may have played in my young life until I met my son’s friend, Emma. According to Johnny, Emma’s hair is long, dark and curly. Her family recently moved from Ft. Wayne, Ind., to Michigan City, near our home in LaPorte, Ind.

Emma has given Johnny several cool T-shirts, a toy racetrack and his first school backpack. She also gives him advice and, unlike his real life 6-year-old sister, never seems to be tough on him.

Johnny is 4, and Emma’s age varies from 5 to 15. Apparently, Emma’s mom says it’s OK to throw food on the floor if you don’t like it. When I threatened to call Emma’s mother for confirmation on this, Johnny didn’t seem the least bit flustered.

At times he acknowledges that Emma is imaginary. I recently asked Johnny if Emma has an imaginary friend. In an instant he replied, "No, but she has a little brother named Dewey." Dewey?

Unlike my buddies Harnchin and Gambino, who in my mind were always in plain sight right next to me, Emma is never here when the rest of us are around. Johnny either just saw her at school or outside or he just talked to her on the phone. The rest of us always seem to have just missed her.

Conjuring a friend

My wife and I were initially a bit curious that Johnny’s imaginary friend was a girl.

But Stott is not surprised. "There are so many different things going at the same time at that age," she says. "Gender identity is being solidified, roles are being defined and language is becoming easier. With an older sister to look up to, and adapt to, it makes perfect sense that Emma is a girl."

Stott points out that imaginary friends don’t always emerge in human form. For some children, they may be invisible objects or animals. Children who do not have imaginary friends often become attached to actual objects, such as special toys or stuffed animals. "Just like imaginary friends, these objects provide warmth and comfort to a child," says Stott.

For years, Johnny’s older sister has insisted on sleeping with a favorite stuffed animal, a floppy-eared friend known as Big Dog. Obviously, it’s more cost-effective when children manufacture best friends in their own mind.

There’s no solid explanation of why some kids adopt an imaginary friend as a companion, while others warm up to action figures or stuffed animals. "In many cases, it’s the first-born child or an only child who conjures an imaginary friend because they are reacting to some level of loneliness or change in their life," Stott explains. As Dr. Walsh has pointed out, imaginary friends can be a response to some fear or anxiety.

Our neighbor’s son invented an invisible friend at age 3, just as he had begun making regular visits to the hospital to deal with a severe case of asthma. Not so ironically, Boompie—as the friend was affectionately known—also suffered from asthma.

"Kevin just started talking about Boompie when he was in the hospital," recalls Kevin’s mom, Sheri Cox. "He had all this information about Boompie, about Boompie’s asthma, about Boompie’s sister Kayla. Every time Kevin went to the hospital Boompie was there too. I think he really needed someone to go through this with him."

Saying goodbye

Boompie hovered over Kevin’s life until the hospital visits ended, at age 10. He is now 20 and in good health. "We always talked about visiting Disney World when Kevin got better," Cox says. "When we went, Kevin said Boompie went with us. But he didn’t come back," she laughs. "According to Kevin, Boompie and his sister Kayla got a job at Disney World. I guess they’re still there."

Cox, a fifth-grade teacher in Gary, Ind., continues to share the story of Boompie with a each new crop of students.

"Oh, they’re really excited to hear about it," she says. "With a class of about 20, there’s always one or two who share their own story about an imaginary friend."

According to the University of Oregon and University of Washington study, at the preschool age, girls are more likely to have imaginary friends. By age 7, however, the trend is just as common in boys. The study also suggests children with imaginary friends are less shy and more sociable.

Other research has supported the idea that children who have more imaginative play are more likely to be creative.

But it’s just as likely the imaginary friend is a coping mechanism, says Stott. "In my opinion, they are adapting to various issues in a positive way, and they are developing in a terrific way."

Try telling that to my younger sister, who still wonders why Mr. Harnchin and Mr. Gambino didn’t exercise their powers of influence before I threw that rock.



Dave Whitaker is a writer and a dad, living in Northwest Indiana.

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