Sometime after Ryan Pepin's fourth birthday, a new friend appeared in his life. "Robin was taller and stronger than my dad, could lift a refrigerator, put it on his back, and run faster than my dad while carrying the fridge," the now 35-year-old Forestville, California resident recalls. "My dad was my hero when I was a little kid, so it was fun and surprising to my parents that my friend could do all things better. Apparently, most of my conversations about Robin included riding bikes and how he had the coolest green bike."
A slightly anxious child, Pepin grew up in a large family surrounded by numerous cousins, uncles, aunts and two brothers. His mom ran a daycare, so other children were a constant presence. "I think Robin likely helped me feel special and unique and boosted my confidence," Pepin says. "He seemed to be an expression of everything I thought was cool at the time and could do anything that I wanted to be able to do."
But by the time Pepin was 5, his friend and mentor had disappeared. His memories of their time together remain entirely positive. "I remember Robin being a real and awesome presence in my life," he says. "My parents confirmed that I seemed to actually have conversations with Robin and talked about my experiences as being real." But they weren't. Robin the refrigerator-carrying biker was — surprise? — a figment of Pepin's imagination.
While it may seem like a straightforward concept, formulating a hard-and-fast definition for an "imaginary friend" can be tricky. For one thing, kids aren't exactly known for being the most reliable self-reporting research subjects.
"Talking to a child about an imaginary companion, you have no idea what's going to come out," Tracy Gleason, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at Wellesley College, told Science Friday. "They'll tell you something and you'll think 'what are they talking about?' We've said, 'do you have an imaginary companion?' and they'll think, 'what a great idea!' So, they'll say 'Yes. Yes, I do!' And they'll report on some imaginary companion they're making up right on the spot."
Typically, psychologists divvy up the broad category of imaginary friends into two groups: invisible pals and personified objects. "It's a made-up or unreal companion that typically provides comfort or support to a child," says Dr. Sheryl Gonzalez Ziegler, the founder and managing director of The Child & Family Therapy Center at Lowry in Denver. "When it's an invisible friend, it's typically more like, 'Annie is my pal and she goes everywhere with me and you can't see her, but I can see her.' There are also imaginary friends that are personified objects. So, like a teddy bear. The relationship there is usually a more caretaking style, but it doesn't have to be a doll — it can be anything."
But even these categorizations can get confusing. While some experts only consider invisible pals "imaginary," others are adamant that omitting the tangible object variety overlooks an important segment of fantasy friends (think stuffed animal Hobbes from the cartoon strip "Calvin and Hobbes")."Objects can be imaginary friends, too, because the child assigns animate qualities to an inanimate object," Ziegler says. "They believe that the objects can speak or move so that is why the term 'imaginary' may be assigned in this case."
And these objects aren't just limited to those found on toy store shelves. Gleason says she once heard about a child who formed a close relationship with a can of tomato paste, for instance [source: Groskin].
But marriage and family therapist Robin Walker of Valley Child Therapy in Woodland Hills, California, says most kids have an imaginary friendship to help them relate to others. "A psychologist named Donald Winnicott developed the idea of 'transitional space,'" he explains. "Winnicott said existence is about how we relate to each other — others in our life are our prime motivating force."
The problem, Walker explains, is that it's impossible to ever really be on someone else's level and relate to them completely. "The best way to do that is through transitional objects or transitional space," he says. "It's the gap between us that we can never quite bridge. We can both relate to it, and therefore, relate to each other."
Based on Winnicott's theory, Walker says an object like a teddy bear or, well, a can of tomato paste, can provide a meaningful connection between two people — or between children and the world. In some cases, transitional objects can even act as temporary substitutes for important figures. "They can create something that takes the place of their mother or father if one isn't there, or if [the child] has a sense of loneliness, they can always have the object and it's like having mom or dad," Walker says.
Imaginary Friends Over Time
Historically, imaginary friends have gotten something of a bad rap. Before the 1990s, the majority of psychologists considered imaginary friends as signs of significant trouble. "They thought these children were weird," Dr. Marjorie Taylor, Ph.D. and head of the Imagination Research Lab at the University of Oregon told the Globe and Mail. "Maybe smart, but socially troubled or shy or whatever. And all that is completely wrong."
Further investigation provided more insight into the true nature of imaginative kids, and the results were often far different from experts' initial assumptions. "Researchers were studying cognitive and social development in children and discovered that over 50 percent of children had an imaginary friend and that actually they were mostly social, empathetic, bright kids," Ziegler says. "It began even more research that started to debunk the thoughts that this was a psychiatric illness but rather a fairly normative part of child development."
As research has progressed, it's become clear that popular culture representation of imaginary friendships that convey unstable kids and adults escaping through fantasy (see: "Donnie Darko,""Drop Dead Fred,""Fight Club," etc.) are just Hollywood creations based on outdated science. Children who create imaginary companions really like pretend play, fantasy and they're also very social [source: Groskin].
Are Imaginary Friends a Sign of Trouble?
According to family therapist Walker, just having an imaginary friend isn't enough to really indicate anything about a child's mental state. "You have to look at the whole of the child to determine if a child is well or not," he says. "So, their social life becomes a barometer for the child's emotional wellness. If they have an imaginary friend but also have a great social life, then there's probably nothing to worry about. We have to be social creatures, we're wired for it. When it's a problem, that's a problem."
Pepin says the time he spent with his imaginary friend Robin only complemented an otherwise full and active social life. "My parents describe my relationship with Robin as a fun aspect of my imagination," he explains, "but he wasn't around all of the time and didn't seem like something that was central to my childhood." Pepin's parents also described him as busy, with lots of activities and interactions with other children and family, as well. He just happened to have a cool imaginary friend on the side.
Pepin's experience is typical for kids with imaginary pals, as is his short-lived relationship with Robin. "Kids almost always grow out of it," Walker says. "It doesn't mean they're always going to be there; it's a moment in time. You would never say one conversation with a bad kid is part of their character and now they're broken forever; that's ridiculous. It's a conversation that's part of the whole."
But while imaginary friends are present, do their creators actually know they're imaginary? "That's the wrong question to ask; that's a grownup asking a question that a child doesn't relate to," Walker says. "If you say to a 3-year-old, 'are you aware this friend is imaginary?' they won't even register that. It's kind of like asking, 'does a fish see water?'"
Denver's Ziegler has a slightly different take, but agrees that the imaginary aspect of these friendships doesn't detract from their significance. "We think that even as early as age 3 or 4, children know it's pretend," she says. "However, that doesn't make the real comfort they get any less important to them." She says some people equate imaginary friends to being a cultural thing. "In our culture, we have Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or leprechauns for St. Patrick's Day; we know these things aren't real, but it doesn't make them any less magical because they're an important part of tradition."
Thirty-year-old San Francisco resident Emilia Varshavsky Shapiro has fond memories of her imaginary friends Mary-Anne and Michelle, who popped up during her elementary school years. Although Shapiro's family immigrated to the U.S. from Russia when she was 4 1/2 years old, she doesn't believe culture shock played a role in the development of her fantasy friendships. "I don't think being an immigrant had any impact on that," Shapiro says. "I think imaginary friends are a 'kid' thing in any culture and I'd guess even more so for American kids than Russian kids because of the emphasis on creativity when you're little."
Shapiro's right: Imaginary friends are universal. "If you follow children up to the age of 7, it's probably in the neighborhood of 60 to 65 percent, and if you only include invisible friends, it's more like 38 percent," Taylor says of American kids. Similar results have been observed across a range of ethnic groups, but hard numbers are difficult to come by. Still, experts are pretty sure imaginary friends are out there in all parts of the world [source: Groskin].
"In this country, we study children differently than in other places," Ziegler says. "Sometimes it's thought of as an American kid thing, and I don't think it's quite as high in other countries. But my thought is this: Children are children. Our environment and culture shape our viewpoints, but I don't think our culture encourages imaginary friends in any way. My intuition and my educated guess is probably that the rates are about the same anywhere in the world, but it's just not studied."
Or Are Imaginary Friends a Sign of Something Great?
Shapiro's right about another thing: Creativity plays a big role in imaginary friendships, and it may actually be one of the major payoffs. Ziegler agrees and says having the capacity to make up a friend and act out various scenarios can signify healthy development and growth in children.
"Some of the data shows kids with imaginary friends are more engaged, more creative and also typically spend less time on TV and screens," she says. "Boredom is an important part of intellect and child development because then kids start coming up with stuff." So, she says, boredom allows them the means to do cool things. Like create make-believe people and friends. "I love to emphasize that to parents: Don't schedule all their time and don't just put a screen in front of them," Ziegler explains. "If they're bored, encourage them to figure out something to do."
Besides improving a child's capacity for creativity, a make-believe friend also can provide a safe space for exploration and development in other critical areas like empathy. "Empathy is the ability to imagine what another person is feeling or feeling what another person is feeling," Walker says. "So, having an imaginary friend can allow a child to exercise their capacity to feel what someone else is feeling." Children without creative imaginations frequently lack that ability, which is critical to their abilities to be compassionate and empathetic.
And while imaginary friends may be useful in the development of these crucial emotional and intellectual aspects, they also can just be really fun. "I'm a certified play therapist, and for us, it's a type of play," Ziegler says. "I might start to have concerns if the imaginary play gets in the way of actual friends and connections. That's a red flag. But for most kids, they might play with imaginary friends quietly in their rooms or take them on trips, but are still pretty engaged in everything and are OK."
Walker agrees: play matters. "An easy example is watching wolf packs or cubs play," he says. "It's a way for them to learn to hunt and socialize and live well in a pack. It's all about play when they're very young. The same is true for children. You don't learn social skills by 10 or 12, or if you do, you learn them by rote, which you can do, but it's not as good as learning because you were on the playground and you figured it out. This is a part of that."
Taking Imaginary Friendships Into Adulthood
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."
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Author's Note: How Imaginary Friends Work
While I can't recall any imaginary pals making the acquaintance of my niece and nephews, there's no shortage of active imaginations in my family. It was heartening to hear experts sing the praises of pretend play, and I'll definitely encourage the kids in my life to continue dreaming up all kinds of possibilities.