Imagine a very young boy with a sweet voice, using a lot of arm gestures, dramatic pauses, squinting, and enthusiasm declares: “Allison is afraid of the dark. So, I took the moon…with a rope…and I…put out the sun!” This was the first thing my son, Leo, announced to me one morning around his third birthday, as he strolled into my room shortly after 6:00 am. My heart swelled as I noted the kindness, creativity, and love in his spirit, as he talked about helping his imaginary friend with her fear.
Allison has been a big part of our family for the past six months. She is six years old, has a pink phone, lives by the dazzling door on Northwoods Avenue, and is really good at climbing trees. She also likes to eat salad, green beans, and other types of food my son plans to eat “when he’s four.” Allison is a source of knowledge, sometimes teaching my son new things about the world – Leo: “Little Pluto’s moon is Charon!” Me: “Wow, cool! How do you know that?” Leo: “Allison told me.”
Sometimes, she is found in nature’s creatures. One day, we saw a deer running through a field: “There goes Allison!” As we continued walking in the woods, he decided we should look for “grandpa and nana’s house…and Allison’s house” because he was quite certain we would find them both in these woods. As we rounded a bend, we spotted a rabbit: “There goes Allison! Let’s follow her to her house.” And, sure enough, the rabbit led us to a little wooden structure that most certainly had a dazzling door.
Sometimes I hear, “You’re Allison, mom,” as little Leo snuggles in more closely for a nighttime story. In these moments, it seems “Allison” is more of a feeling than a person, representing comfort and security. Her appearances bring a sense of joy and wonder to our family. I am happy to indulge the whimsical nature of Allison as she appears to bring great joy, peace, enthusiasm, and creativity to my son’s life. Sometimes, we don’t hear about her for a couple weeks, but then she comes back into our lives seemingly out of nowhere. We might ask “Who did you play with at school today?” “Allison,” he replies without hesitation. We allow him to write the story of her life, being careful not to impose our ideas into his imaginary world. She may not be a real person in the physical sense, but her impact on his sense of adventure and playfulness is undeniably real.
Like real-life relationships, Leo’s relationship with Allison may fizzle or it may continue for many years, becoming increasingly complex and multi-faceted. According to developmental psychologists like Dr. Marjorie Taylor, imaginary friends often become scapegoats — “Allison broke it”, act out in mean ways — “Allison got angry, then threw something at me”, or a source of manipulation — “I can’t go to bed now because you didn’t read Allison a story yet”. So far, Allison has been innocent and charming, but there is a good chance her personality and antics will continue to evolve, much like a character in a great fiction novel or your favorite television drama. Taylor’s research finds authors of fiction novels often recall having pretend friends when younger. The characters they create sweep us into an alternate reality and spending time with these inventions of imagination is a way to take a break from the pressures of reality, gain perspective, and feel amused.
It has been estimated that up to 65% of young children up to age seven have imaginary companions. https://www.washington.edu/news/2004/12/09/imaginary-friends-most-kids-have-one-or-more/. In her book, “Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them”, Dr. Marjorie Taylor summarizes the research findings, dispels myths, and gives practical tips for adults interacting with children with imaginary friends.
Historically, it was believed imaginary friends were not very common and that children who had them were very shy, lonely, distressed, trauma victims, or rather peculiar. Research has illuminated a different story. Children with imaginary companions are actually less shy than their counterparts without imaginary friends. In some studies, they also smile and laugh more with peers, show increased verbal ability, social understanding, ability to take another person’s perspective, and creativity that lasts into adulthood. Children know these friends are pretend, but the relationships they develop are emotional and significant to them. These relationships exercise the muscles of kids’ imagination, which is a powerful resource throughout one’s life.
I don’t recall having an imaginary friend in childhood, but this relationship my son has invented intrigues me. It strikes me as a powerful resource in times of loneliness, confusion, or worry. If adults could harness the power of a young child’s imagination to create something that provides support, companionship, humor, and love, could the impact of stress and trauma on one’s life be mitigated? Perhaps, enriching the imagination pathways in early childhood could set a foundation for increased resilience later in life?
The other day Leo insisted I set out breakfast for Allison. That was the first time she joined us for a meal. It must be getting serious.
Jen S. joined Empathia in 2001 and has worked as a counselor, coach, management consultant, trainer, and account executive. Prior to working in the EAP industry, she taught psychology courses and worked in the managed care field. Jen has a bachelor’s degree in biology, an M.A. in health psychology, and is a Certified Employee Assistance Professional. She enjoys yoga, spending time outdoors, traveling, and spending time with her family.