Calder Johnson, 4, used to have a friend named Gordon, whose family owned lots of pets and drove around in fancy cars such as Cadillacs and limousines. Calder would often point out Gordon and his family as they sped by, crying out to his mom and dad, “Look, there they are.”
He didn’t talk to Gordon directly, but his dad, Andrew Johnson of Hamilton, Ont., says Calder spoke about him daily for six months. “He created this mirror family down to the smallest detail, and it was a big part of his life for a while.”
For many kids Calder’s age, it’s completely normal and common to have imaginary friends, suggests Dr. Mark A. Sabbagh, an associate professor in the department of psychology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. “Between 45 to 60 percent of children have one at some point, which can include everything from invisible imaginary companions to stuffed animals that children imbue with distinct personality traits.” About 25 percent have strictly invisible, imaginary companions.
Some parents may think it seems strange to have a two-way conversation with someone who doesn’t really exist. “In the case of invisible friends, it might look like the child has lost touch with reality, or is hallucinating or something like that,” says Dr. Sabbagh. Parents may also question whether their child doesn’t have enough real friends or lacks the social skills to make them.
While experts are unsure what role imaginary friends play developmentally, Dr. Sabbagh says they’re associated with positive development. He explains that children with imaginary friends tend to have more friends in school, and to be more socially sophisticated in general.
In retrospect, Johnson believes it was a way for his son to express wanting to be more social. “Not that he didn’t have plenty of opportunities to socialize, but he was never in daycare, so maybe he was looking for more contact,” he says.
Make-believe friends usually show up during the preschool years, although it’s a little unclear why. “One theory is that the preschool period is a special time for cognitive development. Preschoolers are developing an increasingly sophisticated understanding of others’ mental lives during this time,” says Dr. Sabbagh. The make-believe friends help them to build social skills by practicing what Dr. Sabbagh calls “mental perspective-taking” — a fancy term for putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
And just like real friends, imaginary friends can have vastly different personalities and behaviour. “Sometimes, the friend is the same as the child (likes what the child likes, does what the child likes to do), and other times the friend is the opposite. For instance, my own imaginary friend loved to eat green peppers, something I disliked very much as a preschooler,” admits Dr. Sabbagh.
Should parents ever worry about imaginary friends? “I don’t know of any instances in which parents should be concerned,” Dr. Sabbagh says. Sometimes, imaginary friends do emerge in response to difficulties that the child is facing — illness or a family move. But as Dr. Sabbagh explains, when imaginary friends emerge under these circumstances, it’s generally believed to be a positive, adaptive coping mechanism — providing kids a safe way to distance themselves from an uncomfortable situation. “Kids have as much of a need to cope with difficulty as adults,” he says.
For many kids, though, they just pop up spontaneously. They also tend to disappear as suddenly as they showed up, generally fading away around age seven. Kids basically outgrow their imaginary friends the same way they eventually lose interest in transitional objects such as a baby blanket or treasured toys.
Gordon and his family disappeared when Calder was three and a half years old. “For a while, Calder made excuses for them,” recalls Johnson. Then, one day, he finally confided, in a matter-of-fact way, that Gordon’s family had died in an accident, and that was the end of that. Coincidentally, Gordon’s disappearance coincided with the birth of Calder’s real-life, baby sister.
Meanwhile, Johnson says he wasn’t concerned at all. “We’re pretty imagination-positive in our house. Besides, I had imaginary friends too when I was a child.”
Angela Pirisi, a Hamilton, Ont.-based freelance writer, lives with her husband, four-year-old daughter, and several very chatty stuffed toys.