How Imaginary Friends Work


Taking Imaginary Friendships Into Adulthood
Experts say parents of kids with imaginary friends should be fully engaged and supportive of it. KidStock/Getty Images
Experts say parents of kids with imaginary friends should be fully engaged and supportive of it. KidStock/Getty Images

The question many adults have about imaginary friends is when do things get weird?

"From what I know, 7 is about the age when the imaginary friend either goes away or sort of becomes a real part of the kid's life," Ziegler says. "It's about the age when parents start to go, 'my kid is in first grade now,' and start get a little bit concerned."

So, what if the made-up pal sticks around after a child's seventh birthday? Or shows up much, much later?

That was the case for 31-year old Anne Hoffman. She didn't have any made-up pals as a kid, but she and her boyfriend currently care for several stuffed animals that play pretty active roles in their everyday lives. "We have five," the Philadelphia resident says. "We started with two — a little mouse and a little cub. I moved in with my boyfriend after two years of long distance, and once we were living together, there was this warmth and loveliness, and I just started getting strong mouse vibrations."

A radio journalist, Hoffman began tapping into her voiceover talent, and it was just a matter of time before Mousey (otherwise known as Ms. Mouse) was born. Cubby the bear came along soon after, followed by several other stuffed friends. "My personal belief is that the mouse and cub are our inner children," she says. "I didn't have the easiest childhood, and part of me probably got silenced or told, 'hey, put that away, we need to be adults right now.' I think it's incredibly rich because it's like an instant connection to your inner child, which is really hard for adults to access. When I'm going through a hard time, I can ask, 'how does the mouse feel?' and check in, and there are ways in which I can state a fear through the mouse that I can't say as an adult."

From Walker's perspective, Hoffman's imaginary world may be a manifestation of Winnicott's theory. "For her and her partner, this is the transitional object," he says of Mousey, Cubby and company. "They have this thing they can relate to, at a distance or not."

While few adults may have the creative capacity of Hoffman (or the guts to cop to it), Walker says everyone talks to themselves, whether an imaginary friend is there to bear witness or not. "We all have times when we talk to ourselves in the form of an inner monologue — even if we're unaware of it. It's always going on and you can examine what it is and where it comes from," he says. "If the language is, 'you're such a mess,' or 'how could you do that? You're so stupid,' you got that from somewhere, either a belief or experience or something."

The question you have to ask yourself, he says, is "how true is it?" and "what if it's based on something false from when you were younger and didn't know better?" An imaginary friend is not an internal monologue, but an external monologue that over the course of childhood becomes an internal monologue. If we're talking about children in treatment, inviting their imaginary friend into treatment is super important to find out how the child is relating to himself or herself vis-à-vis the imaginary friend, he says.

And what about adults trying to manage the imaginary worlds of the young ones in their lives? "They should go right along with it," Ziegler says. "They should truly be fully engaged and supportive of it. Don't be afraid to ask questions like, 'Where's Annie? What does she want for breakfast? Does she want pancakes too?' That can be very supportive to a kid."

"You should interact with them the same way you'd interact with any other friend or object or anything else your child is doing," Walker agrees. "If your child loves pirates, you can say, 'What's going on in the pirating world?' There's no reason not to interact with it, and sometimes it's fun! It's called play, and dramatic play is super important in child development."

Pepin, now a father of two, says he'd have no problem going along with that advice. "I'm not disturbed in the slightest about having had an imaginary friend or the concept of my children having them," Pepin says. In fact, his 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son seem to be following in their father's footsteps. "My daughter has a very active imagination and thinks she is a dragon at times, and or talks about the same dragon — Gracey Dragon — as a separate entity," he says. "Gracey Dragon is a central character in our bedtime stories and my daughter will sometimes talk and act out the stories as if she is Gracey Dragon. I would not be surprised if she had an imaginary friend in a year or so."