Many young children have imaginary friends. Sometimes, it is difficult to know whether they are playing “pretend” or whether they really believe that they have friends whom only they can see. These companions can be invisible friends or personified objects (like stuffed animals).
Researchers at the University of Oregon estimate that 37 percent of children have had an invisible friend by age seven. These friends can appear to be humans, animals, or even fantasy creatures. When the invisible friends are human, research has shown that boys almost always see male imaginary friends, while girls have friends of both sexes.
Although it is traditionally thought that these friends are conjured by lonely youngsters looking for companionship, this is not always the case. Many children develop good social skills as a result of their friendships.
The same cannot always be said for the imaginary friends. They are sometimes naughty—not coming when they are called, for example. Also, when something has been broken or someone has made a mess, the invisible friend is often blamed for it. However, researchers discovered that even very young children were usually aware that their invisible friends were “only pretend.”
Although an imaginary friend in childhood is not a cause for concern, it can become so in adulthood, particularly when it is believed that the friend is real. Adults may act out conversations or role-play situations with a friend who is imagined. When adults talk to invisible friends whom they believe to be real, those individuals may be suffering from schizophrenia. This is particularly true when the friends talk back.