How Imaginary Friends Work

Are Imaginary Friends a Sign of Trouble?
Don't worry if your child has an imaginary friend and a great social life. Experts say there's probably nothing to worry about. Peter Cade/Getty Images

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."