The meaning and effect of childhood imaginary friends have different interpretations

Ghostly cowboy and his horse at Ccncordia cemetery. (Photo courtesy of Hamilton Underwood)

Ghostly cowboy and his horse at Ccncordia cemetery. (Photo courtesy of Hamilton Underwood)

EL PASO – Almost every child has, at one time in his or her life, made the acquaintance of an imaginary friend, an entity that can help develop the child’s imagination and can also be a solace during times of great stress or loneliness.

An imaginary friend, the opposite of an imaginary enemy, is, in most cases, a made-up person, animal or character created in the minds of some people, especially young children, and is sometimes seen in those with autism according to Marilyn Elias in an article entitled ‘Pretend friends, real benefits” published in USA Today.

Ghostly cowboy and his horse at Ccncordia cemetery. (Photo courtesy of Hamilton Underwood)

Ghostly cowboy and his horse at Ccncordia cemetery. (Photo courtesy of Hamilton Underwood)

Despite an imaginary friend being unreal, the child will act as if the imaginary being is physically present by talking to it, playing with it, or even attempting to feed it. Of course, to another person it will seem as though the child is talking into thin air. If told that there is nothing there, the child will often retaliate in a defensive manner by stating that the so-called imaginary friend is invisible.

Oftentimes children will dismiss the imaginary friend once they find real ones or become old enough to realize that their friend is fictional. Parents shouldn’t be worried about their children having an imaginary friend, as it often helps a child realize the difference between reality and fantasy, as well as give them some form of self-esteem. However, sometimes kids know that their “friends” are imaginary, but they might just be bored, or have seen imaginary friend-related stuff on TV.

Having imaginary friends at an advanced age should be looked at by a proper psychologist, as it may be a mental or drug-related problem. It has been suggested that deities, spirits, totems, demons, and similar supernatural beings are the invisible friends of adults and children alike. Children get by with the help of their friends, and imaginary friends might be some of the most helpful, suggests a study that challenges the traditional view that well-adjusted kids give up pretend pals after preschool. About two-thirds of children have played with imaginary companions by age 7, and one-third still have them at 7, according to the first study that follows children’s pretend play partners from age 3 through early elementary school.

Kids who have imaginary friends feel just as competent and popular as those who don’t, and their personalities are no different, says Marjorie Taylor of the University of Oregon. She reported the study along with Stephanie Carlson in the latest issue of Developmental Psychology.

“Imaginary companions have had a bad rap from psychologists for a long time,” Carlson says.

Jean Piaget, an influential Swiss psychologist whose theories on early childhood development took hold in the 1960s, believed that these friends reflect immature thinking and should vanish by the time a child starts school.

But there has been little research on the purpose of pretend pals and whether school-age kids do shed them, Taylor says. Her study of 100 children finds that imaginary friends come and go. Some are invisible humans, the children say. The talking buddy also can be an animal, a doll or a GI Joe. Just like any good friend, the imaginary friend offers companionship and entertainment and can help buck children up for tough times, researchers say.

“It makes you feel brave to walk by that scary dog next door if you have an invisible tiger by your side,” Taylor says. Kids also use invented friends to practice conflict resolution, Carlson says. Parents who eavesdrop on pretend play can open a window into their child’s world, says Barbara Willer of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “It gives you insight into their fears and challenges.”

One little girl told the researchers she has two imaginary friends: One helps her wait patiently until the busy one shows up. “You have to wonder if she might be talking about her parents,” Taylor says. In her study, 27% of children described pretend pals their parents didn’t know about, she says. If they know, reactions vary widely. “We’ve seen everything from parents who are excited and proud, even kind of implying, ‘My child has a better friend than your child,’ to a fundamentalist Christian who brought a Bible to the lab and said she was praying every day for the devil to leave her child,” Taylor says.

Pretend friends rarely are a sign of emotional problems, she says. If a child claims a friend is controlling her and making her do things she doesn’t want to do, parents should seek psychological help, Taylor says. But if a child isn’t depressed and has real-life friends too, pretend pals shouldn’t cause concern. In fact, parents should look for day care and preschool programs that allow time for imaginative play so children can interact with pretend figures, Willer says. “Even if parents discourage it, it’s going to happen.”

What if the imaginary friend is real?

As always, when we have a question there is a psychologist who has the correct answer, even if the psychologist has never set foot out of a lab. Once most of us have this “expert opinion” then we know how to live our lives and direct that of our children. After all, these are “our” children and they will do as we tell them. “It is great for the building of a child’s imagination” trumpet the latest television guru.

However, let me ask a question, what if the child’s imaginary friend is not just the product of a fertile imagination? What if the child’s imaginary playmate is actually a real individual or creature? What do we do then? What does the brilliant television guru say about that?

Children are much more open to psychic events that are adults. Those of us who have reached the age of adulthood have developed certain mental filters that keep us from being considered out of step with society. These filters help us view the world in the accepted fashion. These filters may, in fact, keep us from seeing the world as it really is. However, a child has to yet develop the type of world view that filters out the impossible. For example, I have always been interested in psychic phenomena and what are called new age topics (or the work of the devil as styled by the fundamentalist churches). Add to this the fact that to this day, scientists do not understand what the human brain is actually capable of.  I have also traveled a great deal and seen a lot of things that a rational person would call impossible. Thus I am the worst type of skeptic, one that understands that it is not what the magician is doing in front of us, but the hand he is not showing that should be watched. In fact, until I was 14, I could tell you how much change you had in your pocket. However, when I would do what I thought was a great trick, people would act so strange that I quit doing it. Thus, like most skills or talents, when it is not used, it is lost.

I say all of this to ask a very simple question, what if the imaginary friend is actually very real, but is only the openness of the child that allows it to be seen. Before you snort in derision and walk off consider what happened to one mother living in quarters off of Sheridan Road.

We are just playing ball, mother

According to one Army mother who did not want to be named, her young daughter had talked about an imaginary friend who she would spend hours playing with in her room. Like most mothers, she thought nothing about it and actually encouraged her daughter in regard to this imaginary friend since she thought it helped her daughter develop her imagination. At the same time, there had been some unusual events occurring in their quarters, such as the sounds of footsteps and what sounded like whispering and low pitched laugher in the middle of the night. Naturally, like most “modern” people, she paid no attention to what she thought were simply the figments of her own imagination. However, this soon changed.

On afternoon it was raining and her daughter was playing in her room as usual while the mother folded the ironing. Getting up to get more laundry to fold, she noticed that her daughter was sitting just outside the entrance to her room playing with a ball. She would roll it into the room and it would come rolling back. A little puzzled, she asked her daughter what she was doing and the little girl responded that she was playing with her imaginary friend. All the while she was rolling to the ball into the room and it would come rolling back to her.

The mother’s first thought was that her daughter was bouncing the ball against the far wall of her room and this was what made the ball come back to her, but she heard no sound from the room. The mother racked her brain to find a logical explanation and finally, her curiosity got the better of her. Making no sound, she approached her daughter and peered into the room as her daughter rolled the ball into the room. As she watched the ball stopped suddenly in the center of the room and started back toward her daughter just as if another child had caught it and rolled it back.

Without another word, the mother grabbed her child up and the two of them went and sat in the food court at the Post Exchange until her husband got off duty. When the puzzled spouse arrived home, he was required to search the quarters from one end to the other for any sign of this “imaginary friend” before his wife would set foot back inside their home. Interestingly enough, the little girl never mentioned her imaginary friend after that and when asked, said that her friend had left.

Was this imaginary friend only a figment of the child’s imagination, or was it some more? Was the child seeing something that the parents were not able to see? Perhaps this was the case, as is shown in the next section.

I don’t know what to think without a study

Children are naturally more open minded than adults when it comes to paranormal events because they have not yet been exposed to things such as ghosts or what is fact or fiction.  Many children just may not realize that what they are seeing is actually a ghost or spirit. To them playing ball, for example, with a ghost may seem just as real and natural as interacting with the living. Children have not yet been advised that what they are actually seeing is a ghost and that it is something very unexplainable, therefore their minds have not been trained to shut these things out or to ignore them because they are told it is only their imagination.

As children get older many begin to slowly lose the ability to interact with this unseen world, typically between the ages of five and eleven years of age. There was a study that was completed September 19, 2006 entitled “Children Who See and Hear Ghosts” conducted by Nicole Leader. This study which examined children who purport to see and hear ghosts, revealed that in many cases, parents began noticing their children had the ability to see ghosts or something that could not be seen by others, between the ages of six months and 4 years of age.  In a majority of the case studies, the children who could see ghosts were seeing deceased family members who had passed away long before the child was even born.

Over time is seems that as the child became older, they began to slowly cease to communicate or see beings from the other side. There are a number of reasons that this begins to happen as the child gets older. In many of the cases which I studied, the children were discouraged from believing what they are seeing is real. Often the child is told it is in their head or simply that what they are seeing is not really there and discarded as an imaginary friend or active imagination.

It appears that many children are born with these abilities but discouraged from using them and eventually over time the child shuts down the part of their mind that allows them to communicate with ghosts. In other situations the child’s abilities tend to stay with them even as they get older possibly because they are encouraged to use their gifts and/or because that part of their mind has never turned off the abilities and openness to communicate with ghost or spirits. Also discovered in this study is that the children that do report seeing ghosts have mentioned seeing the same ghosts over and over again.

In most of the cases I encountered throughout this study, the child will describe seeing only one ghost which tends to come to them on occasions mostly in their home environments. Though in some of the cases the child has reported seeing them outside of their residence as well, but this is less common than the child actually seeing them at home. Typically the child has described seeing full body apparitions in human form.  Another good point to make here is that after reviewing several cases, I came across many children who began seeing ghosts after they have a near death experience or after they were seriously injured or ill. Could this be because they became so close to death that they were half way between our realm and the next, opening up that part of their mind that was closed before?

In the conclusion to this study, it seems that many children are naturally born with the ability to communicate with the other side and continue to develop these abilities over time as they get older, while others lose the ability over time due to things such as discouragement from believing what they are seeing is real, to that area of the mind which allows them to see and hear ghosts slowly closes for several other reasons described in this study. Some children go with their hearts and chose to believe what they are seeing in actually there and continue to develop their minds’ ability to see and hear ghosts. It is a possibility that children are also communicating and watched over by their guardians who stay with them until they are ready to be on their own. It appears that in most of the cases I have studied on this topic, the children are communicating with loved ones that have passed over.  It is possible that with time the loved ones no longer feel that they need to be with the child all the time as the child gets older. There is a saying that a child’s mind is that of innocence. Overtime the child begins to learn right from wrong, what is real and what is not, and the weight of the world begins to enter into the life of the child. Perhaps this begins to cloud the child’s mind of innocence and therefore the child begins to disregard or ignore what they are seeing or hearing and this slowly shuts the doors to the area of the mind that allows us to see and hear ghosts.

If a study makes it real or acceptable, then here is the proof that the imaginary friend that your child talks about may well be a real entity. Keep and open mind.


Editor’s note:  For more information read Spirits of the Border: Echoes of the Past by Ken Hudnall and Sharon Hudnall, Omega Press.

2 thoughts on “The meaning and effect of childhood imaginary friends have different interpretations

  1. I have lots of imaginary friends. I am 10 years old so i am often made fun of but they are real and are very defensive when someone says they are not real.

  2. The human mind is a powerful tool. Powerful enough to externalize the internal, in any case.
    In a world where everything is theoretically possible, there still is no way for every strange (however appealing) and contradictory phenomena to be empirically real.

    So far, every previously unexplained phenomena that has been explained has had natural causes and effects. To be believed in by everyone things need to have some basis in reality… well, if the goal is to believe in that which is actually real. Conversely, anything can be believed in and can become quite real to people, especially if enough people agree in their belief.
    So far, all of this seems to point to reasons of psychology rather than being proof that there is such a thing as other senses of which we have no conclusive proof or knowledge.

    In all likelyhood, a lot of things have yet to be explained that would revolutionize the way we see ourselves and the world. Perhaps some of those discoveries would cast some light on the discussion of “communicating with ghosts” or “sixth sense abilities”, but nothing is of yet for certain.

    There is an inherent danger of extrapolating a largely fictional, even dangerously erroneous world-view when relying too much on the world of possibilities and too little on the facts (or the near-facts, as it were). It can be fuel to the fire of anxiety and psychosis, making large mental problems where before there were only minor.

    Perhaps there is something “super”-natural to perceive out there… or perhaps there is simply something unknown but natural to perceive… maybe what there really is to be perceived out there is the universe of immense complexity and potential that exists in here *taps on a human brain*…

    Whatever people choose to believe in, know that beliefs and facts don’t always mix well, and more often than not, one or both can be in error… maybe not huge error, but a minor error can cause quite the ripple effect when you keep building your world-view on top of it.

    Make sure your ideology isn’t built entirely on sand, and if you can’t be sure, place some mental redundancies in the back of your mind, just in case.
    For myself I don’t place too much trust in the world view I currently have. I expect it to be built on gaps and errors, because to know all things and to be sure of it all is probably impossible.

    So I don’t know. Because I don’t believe I know any fact for absolutely sure… I make peace with having the nearest estimated truth at any given time, based on what I’ve learned and surmised: what more can I ultimately ask for?

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