Imaginary friends can help with trauma

Imaginary friends are a common experience in childhood, although they usually disappear before the teenage years. They are a source of companionship and fun, and serve other useful purposes like taking the blame for naughtiness.

Now Frank Burbach and Gemma Roberts are presenting preliminary findings to the Annual Conference of our Division of Clinical Psychology that suggest that imaginary companions helped some people with psychosis cope with loneliness, family conflict and abuse as they were growing up. 

The researchers interviewed three groups: people without a mental health diagnosis, people with a diagnosis of psychosis and people with other mental health problems. The psychosis group had more than double the number of childhood imaginary friends, although it was common to have had an imaginary friend in all three groups.

The people in the psychosis group who had had imaginary companions reported higher levels of sexual and physical abuse and family conflict, and had used their imaginary companion in a number of helpful and protective ways. Their imaginary friend might have been someone to confide in when they were lonely, someone to hold their hand when they were being beaten, and even someone who could experience abuse instead of them.

Perhaps because these people had a greater need of this kind of support, the imaginary companion was particularly vivid to them, and sometimes persisted into adulthood.

Frank Burbach said: “Mental health professionals do not usually ask about imaginary childhood companions. This study suggests that doing so may provide valuable information about people's early experiences and how they coped with them.”