children’s film shows some of the joy that comes from having an imaginary friend

In IF, 12-year-old Bea (Cailey Fleming) discovers that she can see other people’s imanginary friends – and there are lots of them.

This is something I know well, from more than one part of my own life. I first learnt about the film not as a result of my own work on imaginary friends (or companions, as we call them in the academic world) but from my son, who used to have a group of them himself.

I got the whole family tickets to the movie’s opening weekend, keen to see how its companions tallied with my own research as the story unfolded.

It’s no surprise that plenty of companions show up in IF. Having an imaginary friend is normal childhood behaviour, seen in over half of children in some studies.

In the film, Bea becomes a sort of matchmaker for the companions. She encounters creatures who need to be rehomed because the children who created them had long forgotten about them and could no longer see them.

Forgetting companions is a sticking point in my work, as well. As people get older, they are less likely to remember their companions. Even young children sometimes forget that they once had a companion. For this reason, researchers often use a method where they ask parents first to report on their children having imaginary companions before asking the child.

When researching with adults, researchers often find that the older participants will remember significantly fewer imaginary companions than younger adults.

A normal part of childhood

Imaginary companions are usually created in early childhood, arriving between the ages of three and six years. They are found around the world and can be created by deaf children, blind children, neurodiverse and neurotypical children alike.

The companions in IF are invisible, but what the film didn’t show was all the stuffed animals and toys which also count as imaginary companions when children give them characters and play with them. The same areas of the brain are being used by children when they play with toys in this way as when they are creating the minds of and playing with their imaginary companions on a day to day basis.

One thing the film did particularly well was create a vast array of different imaginary companions. Imaginary companions are so personalised there is no single type of character which researchers can predict a child will create.

Trailer for IF.

Recently one of my students interviewed children about their imaginary companions. She found an invisible orange cat that made its owner feed it and let it outside, an imaginary girl who liked flying on pretend planes, and a Chinese speaking rainbow dragon that breathes cotton candy instead of fire. There are so many different forms imaginary companions take and they are all so imaginative and playful, but most of all they are unique to their creator.

All imaginary companions will also have a function for their child. Some children will know their character’s purpose while others will not be aware. The theory is that children create imaginary companions because they need a social skill or outlet that they are not able to get on their own.

One of the key reasons children create imaginary beings is to give them someone to play with or to comfort them. These purposes of companions are also portrayed in IF.

Companions can arise when a child might feel overlooked, giving the child the social confidence to speak up when they feel that they can’t. It can also act as a scapegoat for poor behaviour, and even someone to take care of and nurture. Transitional times when the child feels unsure about the future will also sometimes inspire creation. In many ways these characters are coping mechanisms made by the child.

IF takes a positive stance towards imaginary friends, showing them as a normal and joyful part of childhood. Even so, there are many benefits to a child having imaginary companions that didn’t make their way into the film.

Research by myself and others has found that children with imaginary companions are better able to take others’ perspectives; they are better at storytelling and have more advanced social skills than children who have not created imaginary companions. These advantages follow creators through their adolescence, giving tweens and teens who have imaginary companions better social problem solving skills. In adulthood, people who had childhood imaginary companions are better able to put themselves in other’s shoes.

I would absolutely recommend IF – especially if you have an imaginary companion, if you did in the past, or if you want to create an imaginary companion in the future.

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