Having an imaginary friend is a common experience for many children. Imaginary friends provide comfort, entertainment, and a way for kids to explore their emotions and work through difficult situations. For gifted children in particular, imaginary friends can play an important role in their development.
What are imaginary friends?
Imaginary friends are characters that children invent and interact with as companions. This involves pretending the friend is real and present, holding conversations with them, attributing thoughts and feelings to them, and playing with them. Imaginary friends may be entirely fictional or based on toys, TV characters, or people in the child’s life.
Studies estimate that between 18-65% of children have an imaginary companion at some point before age 7. They are most common between ages 3-6, when children are developing language skills, creativity, and social skills. By age 7, most kids outgrow their imaginary friends as real friendships become more engaging.
Why do children create imaginary friends?
Experts believe imaginary friends fulfill important developmental needs for children:
- Self-expression – Imaginary friends provide a way for kids to experiment with language skills, emotions, and new ideas in a safe, private environment.
- Independence – Having a friend of their own helps kids practice autonomy and self-direction.
- Companionship – Imaginary friends act as playmates and provide comfort during stressful events like switching schools.
- Creativity – Inventing an imaginary world and character fosters imagination and original thinking.
- Mastery – By controlling the imaginary friend’s actions, children work through fears, wishes, and difficult experiences on their own terms.
Overall, the imaginary friend phenomenon allows children to grow socially and emotionally through fantasy play.
Do gifted children have imaginary friends?
Research indicates gifted children do commonly have imaginary companions. Estimates range from 33-65% of gifted kids having an imaginary friend at some point.
There are several reasons why imaginary friends may be particularly important for gifted kids:
- Advanced cognition – Gifted children tend to have highly active imaginations and think more abstractly at an earlier age.
- Asynchronous development – Gifted kids’ cognitive abilities often get ahead of their emotional maturity, making imaginary friends appealing.
- Boredom – Gifted children may invent imaginary companions to keep themselves entertained.
- Social struggles – Making friends can be challenging for gifted kids, so they create their own.
- Isolation – Gifted kids may feel different from peers and enjoy the non-judgmental company of imaginary friends.
- Anxiety – Many gifted children suffer from anxiety, and imaginary friends can provide comfort.
- Only child – Gifted only children may be even more motivated to create companionship through imaginary friends.
Additionally, gifted kids tend to engage more deeply with imaginary friends and retain them for longer durations than non-gifted children. Their imaginary worlds are highly complex and detailed.
Do gifted kids have certain types of imaginary friends?
Researchers have noticed some trends in the types of imaginary friends gifted children are likely to invent:
- Multiple imaginary friends – Gifted children often create a whole cast of imaginary characters, not just a single friend.
- Unusual personalities – Gifted kids may opt for imaginary friends with more complex, quirky personalities.
- Fantasy figures – Their imaginary friends are more likely to be fictional characters like aliens, superheroes, or magical beings.
- Advanced abilities – Gifted children often imagine friends who are highly intelligent, talented, powerful, or wise.
- Similar interests – Their imaginary friends share the gifted child’s passions, from books to art to science.
These trends reflect gifted children’s exceptional imaginations and their desire for intellectual equality in friendship.
Are imaginary friends healthy for gifted kids?
For the most part, experts agree imaginary friends are a normal, healthy part of gifted children’s development. However, there are some caveats:
- If imaginary friends prevent socializing with real people, they may hinder social development.
- Reliance on imaginary friends that continues past age 6-7 may signal emotional problems that require attention.
- Imaginary friends should supplement, not replace, real-life interests and activities.
- Violent or sinister imaginary friends may reflect emotional disturbances that need addressing.
As long as the imaginary friend phenomenon shows these signs of being healthy:
- The child distinguishes the imaginary friend as fantasy, not reality.
- The imaginary friend is under the child’s control.
- It helps the child express thoughts/feelings in a positive way.
- The child enjoys and voluntarily engages with the imaginary friend.
…then gifted children can benefit greatly from the creativity and self-understanding imaginary friends facilitate.
Do gifted kids grow out of imaginary friends?
As gifted children mature cognitively and socially, most will naturally let go of their imaginary companions, just like non-gifted kids. Though gifted children may stay involved with vivid imaginary worlds a bit longer than their peers, they will eventually favor real friendships as they get older.
Signs a gifted child is outgrowing an imaginary friend include:
- Talking about the imaginary friend less frequently
- Playing less with the imaginary friend
- Saying the imaginary friend is going away or dying
- Loss of interest in pretending the imaginary friend is real
- Paying more attention to real friends
If a gifted child remains significantly attached to imaginary friends beyond the age of 8-9, parents may want to consult with experts to understand if it signifies an issue like isolation, anxiety, or developmental lags requiring assistance. But in most cases, imaginary friends naturally fade as gifted kids grow up.
Tips for parents of gifted kids with imaginary friends
Because imaginary friends are so common and beneficial for gifted children, most experts recommend parents take a neutral or supportive stance. Here are some tips:
- Show interest by listening when your child talks about their imaginary friend, without overreacting.
- Avoid revealing the imaginary friend is not real, but don’t actively pretend they are either.
- Point out when your child switches from fantasy to reality, to reinforce the distinction.
- Watch for signs of emotional problems imaginary friends could indicate.
- Focus on facilitating real friendships too.
- Let the imaginary friend phenomenon run its course naturally.
With understanding and guidance, most gifted children outgrow imaginary friends while gleaning their developmental benefits.
The benefits of imaginary friends for gifted kids
Though imaginary friends may seem like a sign of immaturity, the opposite is true – imaginary friends provide gifted kids with many benefits:
- Creativity – Gifted children flex their exceptional imaginations by inventing detailed imaginary worlds.
- Self-expression – Imaginary friends help gifted kids safely work through complex feelings and ideas.
- Independence – Having their own friend promotes autonomy and self-confidence.
- Emotional mastery – Imaginary friends help gifted children process fears, wishes, and difficult experiences.
- Social skill building – Interacting with imaginary friends is practice for real friendship.
- Intellectual equals – Gifted kids create imaginary friends who match their advanced cognition.
Ultimately, the phenomenon reflects gifted children using their strengths to fill developmental needs in creative ways.
In summary, gifted children do commonly have imaginary friends, which provide many benefits tailored to their unique abilities and needs. From offering intellectual equals to helping master fears, imaginary friends allow gifted kids to flex their strengths. With understanding from parents, gifted children can gain great developmental value from imaginary companions and naturally outgrow them over time.