Psychologists have never quite been sure what to make of children with imaginary friends. On one hand, interacting with people who don’t exist has a tendency to set off alarm bells with mental health professionals. On the other hand, “pretend play” is a normal and healthy part of childhood.
Most of the research that’s been done comes down firmly on the side of “having imaginary companions during childhood is healthy.”
In fact, several studies suggest that children with imaginary friends not only are perfectly normal, but even outperform their peers in some areas.
For example, a 2009 study of 48 5-year-old children showed that those with imaginary companions created richer narratives when retelling stories and when telling stories about their own personal experiences. Similarly, a 2008 study found that children with imaginary friends seemed to have better communication skills.
Interestingly, children with imaginary friends also differ in how they view their real friends. Specifically, a 2014 study found that 5-year-olds with imaginary friends tended to focus on their friends’ mental characteristics when asked to describe their real-life friends.
One study with more mixed results looked at whether children had imaginary friends in middle school, then followed the children to the end of high school. It found that although children with imaginary companions in middle school reported using more positive coping strategies in their daily lives, they were less popular with their peers and were evaluated as having more problematic behaviors by their parents. However, when the study followed up with these same children at the end of high school, they appeared to be more well-adjusted.
Researchers have also discovered that while children in some cultures are more likely to have imaginary companions, imaginary companions seem to be culturally universal. A recent study of 443 children in Kenya, Malawi, Nepal and the Dominican Republic found that 21 percent of these children reported having imaginary friends, ranging from 5 percent in Nepal to 34 percent in the Dominican Republic.
Taken together, the results of all these studies point in the same direction: having imaginary friends is a normal, healthy and positive childhood behavior.