Imaginary Friends: Some Kids Have Them, Some Don't


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Peeno Ceeno (pronounced pee-no, see-no) was my imaginary friend. She lived in the wooded wetland behind my house.

I was expecting my boys to have imaginary friends, too. But so far, neither five-year old Bubba nor three-year old Peter has mentioned any imaginary pals.

As a parent, I'm not concerned, but I find it curious. Perhaps having an imaginary friend means you're creative (in which case, my boys are duds). Or maybe having an imaginary friend is an indication of being lonely. I made some calls last month to find out.

"Imaginary friends serve a whole variety of purposes for kids who have them," said Dr. Henry Gault, a psychiatrist with a practice in Deerfield, IL. He came recommended by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

On the most basic level, imaginary friends give children a companion. These friends also allow kids to play the role of parent. Thus, children tend to be bossy when dealing with an imaginary friend, Gault said.

Children also commonly pretend their imaginary friend does things they know are forbidden. For example, an imaginary friend might watch a movie or television show that the child isn't allowed to watch. This enables the child to live out a fantasy while doling out the blame on their imaginary accomplice.

"As we understand it, there's a lot of depth for what an imaginary friend means," Gault said, adding most kids have imaginary friends between the ages of three and five years old.

However, not having an imaginary friend doesn't mean a child is any more or less imaginative. Nor is it an indicator of loneliness. It's just one of those things some kids have and some kids don't, said Dr. Julie Rinaldi, a clinical psychologist at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

"I don't think there is anything negative about having an imaginary friend," Rinaldi said. She also noted that she's never seen a child use an imaginary friend as a way to deflect trauma. In other words, abused kids don't typically use imaginary friends as an outlet or coping mechanism.

I floated my own theory on imaginary friends to both doctors Gault and Rinaldi.

I think kids might be less likely to have imaginary friends nowadays. Modern children have so many other things to occupy their time. A lot of kids are over-scheduled with things like soccer, music lessons, or even learning a foreign language. When kids are bored, they turn to television, movies, and video games. This leaves less time and opportunity to get acquainted with an imaginary friend.

"I think that's a reasonable theory," Gault said. Rinaldi agreed. Though both said they haven't seen any research to back up my bit of amateur psychiatry.

All I can offer is my own experience. And around my seventh birthday, Nintendo's NES video game system debuted. That was about the same time I lost contact with Peeno Ceeno.

Howard Ludwig is a former business writer who traded in his reporter's notebook for a diaper bag, becoming a stay-at-home dad. He writes for The Father Life and can be reached at hludwig@thefatherlife.com.

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