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imaginary friends

Opinion: Imaginary friends at age 9? It’s happening with COVID

Loneliness opens up a new pretend world, even for older kids.

Imaginary friends: I cock my head as I study the handwritten invitation my youngest daughter has just handed me. My expression makes it pretty clear that I’m not sure what to say. 

“The wedding is this weekend. You can make it, right?” she says, holding her large stuffed animal bear named Brian. “He’ll be so disappointed if you can’t come!” she comments, gesturing toward the bear. The one who is apparently marrying my 9-year-old in a couple of days.

This news shouldn’t surprise me. Brian joins us for dinner most nights. And they have a text thread going on my phone through an app, designed –startlingly — for just this kind of thing, where the user has a chat between two parties that are both self-created and self-generated. (Any alternate need for this kind of thing is hard for me to imagine, so I prefer not to think too much about it.) 

Brian comes along to the pumpkin patch, to run errands, and snuggles up close to our daughter during movie night.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world!” I tell her, returning the most casual wedding RSVP in history. This response is fueled by instinct, and as I say it, I pray I’m getting this right. Afterward, I immediately hightail it to my computer to search for psychological articles on the topic of imaginary friendships in later childhood. Also, for those on loneliness and anxiety in children in challenging situations. 

Others have come forward in my practice and in my personal realm to reveal that their children too are having an uptick in imaginary friendships. One mom tells me that her daughter uses a similar app to the one described above to chat with a made-up confidant. Yet another tells me that her son has a daily meeting in the backyard with a new friend in the neighborhood –someone who just moved in and has no friends. Both of these parents confirm that this started for their children within COVID times, arriving on the heels of a precipitous decline in social contact for each of their kids, which is precisely what happened with my daughter.

As a parent, a psychotherapist and parent coach, I am led to deeply consider what is going on here, and to ponder when we might have cause to worry for our young kids who are genuinely deprived of casual and normative social contact for a long stretch of time, perhaps for crucial years of development.

Gregory K. Fritz, M.D., of Brown University conducted a study in 2015 related to the topic of imaginary friendship. Of course there is no adjustment in this research for pandemic conditions, but the findings are useful to the extent that we can apply them to our children’s mental health needs in creating and in relating to these buddies. Though the pandemic may have increased the need for them, the theme of the created-on-demand friend is not a new idea.

His team’s findings indicate that for most children, the imaginary friend is an offshoot of the development of the imagination, meaning the imaginary friend is a creative device for making sense of and relating in the world during the less rational stages of development. His team reports that 65% of children under the age of 7 admit to having an imaginary friend of some kind, and that they are more commonly found in girls, and in eldest (or only) children, as opposed to later-borns. Interestingly, the research finds too that many children (40% of the subjects in one study) will voluntarily refer to these friends as not real, or as pretend, indicating that they clearly know the difference.

As for whether or not to worry, Fritz writes that imaginary friends are rarely harbingers of serious psychological pathology, but rather they are a window into the inner world and struggles of a child at any given time. He goes on to say that he considers them “among the joys of childhood, to be enjoyed, respected, and remembered fondly by all those lucky enough to make their acquaintance.” 

During this pandemic, we might consider that what we get to see and relate to through our child’s imaginary friends might be helpful for learning how to be supportive in the child’s social development — during this strange era in their lives, when this will be done more often within the walls of our home than anyone might have imagined. 

As I settle into that way of thinking, a phrase comes instantly to mind. It’s “Dear Kitty.

Kitty is Anne Frank’s friend, to whom she addressed so many of her letters, which were found alongside her diaries.

In these letters, we find a young teen girl who is shuttered with her family for years, but who refused to close every door on her imagination or her development. So to Kitty, as well as Pop, Phien, Conny and more — a group that consisted of people she had known in real life, pre-hiding, as well as some characters from a book series she admired — she tells her thoughts and feelings and even makes plans with them for what fun they will have, skating and acting in plays.

This group of friends slowly fades out, and in the end, Kitty was the one to whom Anne wrote every letter, offering to the world one of the most recognizable teen-girl traits imaginable: She established her identity alongside her best friend. Only her friend was made up.

This gives me solace. For as much as I know that my daughter is lacking in social connections — the human sustenance for learning how to be a person among others in civil society — she is propelled by something deeper, something that Fritz’s researchers tells me is a natural, creative drive. And which Anne Frank invites me to consider as a product of the constraints of our unusual times, shining a light on healthy personal development even in the worst of circumstances (which Anne’s life story reminds me, this decidedly isn’t).

So off to the wedding I go, armed with adoration for my daughter, and appreciation for what Brian is helping her practice while we wait for the world to return to normal — whatever that will look like in the coming months and years.

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About the Author

Liz Covey

Liz Covey is a psychotherapist and parent coach based in South Seattle.