Real benefits in imaginary friends
02 Jun 2009
Children with imaginary friends are better at learning to communicate than other children, according to La Trobe University psychologist, Dr Evan Kidd.
Dr Kidd and colleague Anna Roby explored the hidden world of imaginary companions in a bid to understand the benefits.
The study of 44 children showed that the 22 children who had imaginary friends were better able to get their point across than were children of the same age who did not have one.
“Children with imaginary friends have a lot of practice at inventing interactions between their imaginary friends and themselves,” said Dr Kidd.
“We think that this is what facilitates their development of conversational skills – being in charge of both sides of the conversation,” he added.
The researchers also discovered that children with an invisible friend or personified toy had a better social understanding, were generally first born or only children and were very creative.
“They were all very creative. The children treat these ‘friends’ as real, play with them throughout the day and refer to them in conversation.”
One child reported having a companion named Sarah, who had a pet dragon. Another enjoyed a friendship with an imaginary family, Mr and Mrs Driller who had two children.
“There was one child who had an imaginary tomato ‘Bodder’ and a potato called ‘Bun,’” said Dr Kidd.
The phenomenon of the imaginary friend is really misunderstood, according to Dr Kidd.
"People think it is rare when in fact past studies have shown that around 65 per cent of children aged between three and nine, had imaginary friends.”
“Others think it is a red flag – thanks to the depiction of imaginary friends in popular culture like Donnie Darko or Drop Dead Fred, where the characters rely on imaginary characters due to some internal malaise”.
Rather, says Dr Kidd, this special type of pretend play appears to be an essential component of normal development.
Dr Kidd has gone onto establish in further research that the benefits of imaginary companions are long lasting.
His study of university students showed that those who recalled having an imaginary companion in childhood were more creative, more achievement oriented, and more emotionally responsive than students who didn’t have one.
Interestingly, however, there was no difference between any of the 44 children in listening skills.
Dr Kidd is a Charles La Trobe Research Fellow at the School of Psychological Sciences. His current research interests include sentence processing in children and adults, the acquisition of complex sentences, the acquisition of verb argument structure and verbal morphology, how children deal with lexical and syntactic ambiguity in acquisition, and the linguistic skills of children with imaginary companions.
Dr Kidd received his PhD from La Trobe University in 2004.
Dr Evan Kidd
Ph: 0433 533 664
Ph: 03 9818 8540