“Shilo, when I was young – I used to call your name. When no-one else would come, Shilo, you always came,” sang Neil Diamond. The pop performer was not alone in filling a childhood void with an imaginary friend. New research shows it is much more common than previously thought, with up to 65% of children reporting fantasy companions who stay with them for several months and help them through the tough times of growing up.
Psychologists used to believe they were an indicator of mental illness, but imaginary friends are now being shown in international research to be beneficial to children.
There are clear links between imaginative play in childhood and the development of linguistic, social and cognitive skills, says psychologist Dr Evan Kidd, a research fellow at La Trobe University in Victoria, who has studied the role of imaginary friends.
By creating a fantasy character, it seems children learn to communicate better and understand there can be differing points of view. “These kids are able to attribute different mind states to other people, to appreciate that other people think differently from themselves and to interact with them,” says Dr Kidd.
And, while researchers used to believe imaginary friends were a preschool phenomenon, research is now suggesting much older children may have imaginary friends, too. It’s also thought that people who had an imaginary friend as children are advantaged throughout their lives. They grow up to be better communicators and are more creative and achievement-oriented, according to a recent paper by La Trobe University and The University of Manchester, UK.
Research is underway to understand the source of these advantages and whether encouraging all children’s imagination may be beneficial in later life. “Parents can get sick of it, especially if the child is using the imaginary friend for blame avoidance,” says Dr Kidd. “But, in general, it’s completely normal and parents should just enjoy it.” Below, some familiar faces share stories about their childhood companions.
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