It's not likely to win and oscars, but the new Robert De Niro thriller, Hide and Seek, which revolves arounda little girl's obsession with an imaginary friend named Charlie, taps into something quite real: the confusion and fear parents experience when their children start paying more attention to made-up companions than flesh-and-blood friends. Are kids who do so lonely or crazy or crying for help?
In most cases none of the above, says psychologist Marjorie Taylor of the University of Oregon, who with her colleague Stephanie Carlson at the University of Washington has conducted a study of kids and their fictional companions. Not only are such creations common--65% of children up to age 7 played with at least one imaginary friend at some point in their lives, according to a paper Taylor and Carlson published in Developmental Psychology late last year--but they may give children who dream them up a developmental advantage.
The first thing to understand about imaginary playmates, says Taylor, is that for most children they are just that: playmates. They're designed to provide companionship and entertainment. Unlike real kids, they don't have to get cranky, throw tantrums or sulk when they lose a game. And they often can do things and go places the child can't. Skateboard Guy, for example, described by one child in Taylor's study, is a tiny, invisible 11-year-old boy who sleeps in the child's shirt pocket and performs amazing skateboard tricks the child wishes he could do.
Of course, not all imaginary friends are so versatile or well behaved. Children often complain about invisible friends who won't share or are too loud, too bossy, too stubborn or too busy to play. One child had a make-believe pal who was such a pill he named her Darn It.
Bad as these friends seem, they are not necessarily signs of a troubled mind. They may, in fact, be stepping stones on the road of emotional development. Negotiating with temperamental imaginary friends can be a way for kids to work out real-life issues. "There are themes that children are mulling over and trying to understand in their play," says Taylor. "Being busy is one of them. Meanness and bossiness are also things children think about when they talk about their real friends."
Indeed, what imaginary friends say and do can be a useful window into a child's mind. Four years ago, Quinn Pascal, 6, a bubbly first-grader from Eugene, Ore., invented Elfie-Welfie, an invisible woman with piles of tie-dyed hair and a menagerie of "dozens of zillions, katrillions" of imaginary animals. Quinn's mother Kate says Quinn uses Elfie-Welfie to play out some very real desires. In Elfie-Welfie's world, Quinn was allowed on the rides at the fair. (In real life, Quinn was too small.) Elfie-Welfie had an orange cat named Stripey. (Quinn desperately wanted a pet.) Elfie-Welfie promised she would give Quinn a little brother or sister. (Quinn is an only child.) "[Elfie-Welfie] was my reality check," says Kate. "There were times I would ask Quinn what she was thinking about, and she would say, 'Oh, I was just thinking about how Elfie-Welfie smiles all the time.' And, sure enough, I'd been having a rough day and grumbling around."