Happiness and an imaginary friend

Happiness and an imaginary friend

Imaginary pals a tonic for children

Invisible playmates increase confidence and can help the young to tackle bullies, says study

Anushka Asthana, education correspondent

Sunday July 8, 2007


Imaginary friends, the mysterious characters who often take up residence in family homes, are hugely beneficial to children, according to new research.

A study from the Institute of Education found that the invisible pals offer companionship and emotional support, aid creativity, boost self esteem and create a ‘sense of self’. Parents should not worry even if their child dreams up multiple companions, it said.

‘Imaginative children will create imaginary friends,’ said Karen Majors, an educational psychologist at the institute who is carrying out the research. ‘Companionship is a big part of it. They can be a way of boosting self-confidence.

Perhaps the best known invisible friend for young children today is Soren Lorenson, a little grey boy who appears in the hit children’s TV series Charlie and Lola, based on books by Lauren Child. As Lola’s imaginary friend, Soren is her confidant and security blanket.

The news that imaginary friends can be such a positive addition to the family will be welcomed by many parents concerned about the strange companions being dreamed up by their children. Many remember Harvey, the invisible giant rabbit who was the best friend of James Stewart’s character in the 1950 film of the same name. Stewart’s on-screen family thought the appearance of the rabbit may have had more to do with his propensity for drink.

Imaginary animals are also a common feature in Majors’s work. One six-year-old girl, Lisa, rode an imaginary pony while Luke, a little boy, created an imaginary duck when he went swimming. Luke also had an imaginary family who moved house when he did and went on holiday at the same time.

Majors, who also works for the Barking and Dagenham psychology service in east London, found cases where children used the characters to help cope with bullying. In many cases children did not get on with their ‘unfriendly’ companions, but they were still a positive force.

In one case a boy who had been tormented at school told his parents that he was being hit by his imaginary friend. Another argued with his friend to help release anger. There was also a girl who created a smaller version of a real friend, which made her feel more confident.

One child Majors spoke to had even created a paracosm, or imaginary world. Interestingly, novelists had a higher rate of imaginary friends, as do children with some special needs, including autism and Down’s syndrome.

Boys were more likely to have older, more macho friends, Majors found, while girls tended to choose younger companions. One study she highlighted said 65 per cent of children had imaginary friends.

As part of the research Majors tracked the lives of six children in depth and carried out an extensive literature review. She has now released her early conclusions, but the work will continue. She found that an only child or a much older sibling were more likely to create the friends. It was common, she said, for companions to be created when a brother or sister is born.

Margaret Morrissey, of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, said her granddaughter Eva developed an imaginary friend at six, the year her first sibling was born.

‘She spent a long time talking about her friend Kelly, and one day I suggested she invite Kelly to her birthday party,’ said Morrissey. ‘It was only when she said Kelly lived here that I realised this little girl, who played such a big part in her life, was only in her imagination.’

‘She used Kelly to test out what she could, or could not, say or do. She was asked about things she would have hesitated about if talking about herself.’

Guardian Unlimited ê_Ô© Guardian News and Media Limited 2007