Imaginary friends are considered a creative expression of children and are part of their developmental process.
Medical Advisor: Lucio Ortega González. Psychologist and psychiatrist, practitioner at Coomeva Private Healthcare.
The world of children is like a magical universe that sometimes seems more real than reality itself, a concept that ties in with the ideas of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, known for his contributions to childhood studies and to his constructivist theory of cognitive development. Children develop their own imaginary worlds, based on their dreams, wishes and experiences. Imaginary friends are a way of expressing themselves in a complex space that they are just getting to know, interpret and begin to accept.
In this imaginary world, there are super heroes, monsters, ghosts, fairies, princesses and other figures that they create themselves. These help them to grow and develop their emotions and creativity.
According to Lucio Ortega González, psychiatrist and psychologist, “For children, imaginary friends are a normal part of the developmental process. Based on their imaginations, children create solutions to their internal conflicts. It is important to understand that childhood is a complicated stage for them as they are learning to interact with others and need tools to relate to one another.”
From their perspective, the imagination is a tool to express their deepest desires. Children are aware of their reality, but at their age, it is still difficult for them assimilate to it and accept it how it is.
“For a child, having an imaginary friend is like listening to a fairy tale; when they hear these types of fairy tells, they identify with them. An example being, when a superhero defeats a villain or when a princess overcomes adversity; this is why they like such amazing stories, as they are a dramatization of what they experience,” explains Dr. Ortega.
Dr. Ortega adds that these types of interactions are common in all children, especially among those with few social interactions. This is because they have to process and express the stimuli they receive in their brain and because there are no other children around their age to talk with about what they think, so they make up their imaginary friends as a physiological mechanism to work out their stresses, emotions and their creative abilities as well.
This is how these friends can turn into actual physical beings for children, who may confuse them with reality. When this happens, many parents take their children to see specialists. At the appointment, as Dr. Ortega states, it is explained that the reason for these hallucinations is normally because they feel alone. This is not common, however, if the child is surrounded by people of similar ages.
Several studies have been done about this phenomenon. Some say that it is more common in only children who just live with adults, as if they are trying to make up for this lack of interaction. Others state that this happens with more sensitive children.
Can it get out of control?
This can become a complicated situation when there are inherited genetic factors involved, such as with adult family members that suffer from hallucinations or schizophrenia. “That is when it is analyzed as a potential disorder, but some people even speak to themselves, and this does not mean that they suffer from a mental illness. Cases like these often happen with artists who develop certain creative characteristics, or in people with strong imaginations,” states Dr. Ortega.
The situation can begin to get out of control if the child expresses fears or obsessive ideas, isolates themselves, does not want to go to school or play with their friends, stops eating, has difficulty getting to sleep or expresses aggressive behavior.
This form of interacting with imaginary friends is not a pathological condition, as long as the child carries on normal with activities such as playing in the garden, interacting with their parents, getting exercise and having fun. “In these cases, imaginary friends are a normal part of the child’s behavior,” Dr. Ortega explains.
Imaginary friends also serve as a starting point for engaging in conversation and establishing trust in relationships with others. As teens, before becoming attracted to someone, it is common for them and to re-enact fictional characters that they see in magazines, movies or on television. An imaginary friend is a creative expression that can even occur in adults in times of stress.
This is not about encouraging this interaction or not, it is about always motivating the child to develop freely. This means giving them enough space to have conversations with their peers so that they enter their developmental stages without problems. “Some will have imaginary friends longer than others, but this should not be considered a disease or syndrome,” the psychiatrist explains.
Each child is a world in itself, and inside this world there are no limits as they grow
The imagination allows people to prepare themselves for real-life events.
Children with imaginary friends have more confidence in themselves. From their perspectives, if the person they have created can overcome an obstacle, so can they.