Imaginary Playmates

More than any other personality theorist, Sullivan recognized the importance of having an imaginary friend especially during the childhood stage. He believed that these friendships can facilitate independence from parents and help children build real relationships. hi support of Sullivan's notion, some evidence exists that children who develop imaginary friends—in contrast to those who do not—are more creative, imaginary, intelligent, friendly, and sociable (Fem, 1991; Gleason, 2002).

Paula Bouldhi and Clnis Pratt (1999) reported some interesting data on 3- to 9-year-old children with imaginary playmates. Tins study found few differences between boys and ghls in frequency of reporthig an imaginary friend. Also, parental attitudes toward their child's imaginary playmate were quite positive. Only 1% of parents thought the imaginary friend was harmful for the child whereas two thirds of the parents believed that having an imaginary friend was beneficial. Bouldhi and Pratt also found that nearly 80% of the children were happy or hi high sphits while playing with their imaginary companion; only 3% were lonely and another 3% angry. One fourth of the children needed a chair placed at the dinner table for then imaginary friend one third needed extra room hi the bed and more than one third needed extra space hi the car.

Another study by Bouldin and Pratt (2001) examined the question of whether children who develop imaginary friends have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality. One possibility is that children who develop such nonexistent friends simply are more imaginative in general, with greater dispositions toward daydreaming and fantasizing. A second possibility is that children with imaginary companions are more credulous. That is, they are more likely to believe in fantastic and magical images; but behaviorally, they are no more likely to be afraid of ambiguous visual imagery than children who do not believe in imaginary friends.

The procedure used by Bouldin and Pratt (2001) called for an experimenter to brhig each child hito a testing room that had various toys and a play tent. After establishing rapport with the child the experimenter asked the child to retrieve a writing pad from inside the tent. Then she described a children's story she was writing about a monster who lives hi a cave, much like the tent. The child was then told that

234 Part II Psychodynamic Theories the monster was very good at hiding and that the experimenter could not see it. Therefore, she asked the child "Do you think you could help me describe the monster?"

After the child described a monster, the experimenter thanked the child and told him or her that "the monster you described for my story would fit hi a cave the same size as the tent." At this pohit, while the child's attention was focused on the tent, a monster-like silhouette was projected on the side of the tent for no more than 3 seconds. After ensuring that the child had seen the hnage, the experimenter asked the child whether he or she would put the writing pad back in the tent. After a brief free-play period with the toys in the room, and as the child was behig escorted back to the classroom, she or he was asked simply, "Do you have a make-believe friend whom you talk to and who goes places with you?"

Next, two raters, blind to the purpose of the study, coded both verbal and nonverbal videotaped responses. In the verbal category, children either said they saw a monster or did not, whereas hi the nonverbal category the child either moved or jumped at the image or did not. Other verbal behaviors that were coded included spontaneous comments concerning a monster during the free-play period; other nonverbal behaviors included whether the child approached the tent when asked to put the pad back hi it.

Compared with children who did not have imaginary companions, those who did were significantly more likely to report having seen a monster and to have moved or jumped upon seeing the silhouette. When asked whether they thought a monster might have been hi the tent, the group with an imaginary playmate was much more likely to say yes (42% versus 5%). In addition, the imaginary companion group was more likely to experience daydreams, to realistically visualize people in then minds, and to "sometimes get real scared because of something you think about" (p. 111). Bouldhi and Pratt argued that these results demonstrate a host of imaginative and emotional differences between children who do and do not have imaginary companions. It is worth noting that from the same dataset, Bouldin, Bavhi, and Pratt (2002) studied the linguistic development of the two groups and found that the imaginary playmate group used more mature language relative to the other children. The researchers argued that this demonstrated enhanced social-cognitive skills in the imaginary companion group, further providing evidence for the Sullivanian view that having imaginary friends enhances rather than thwarts social, cognitive, and emotional development.

In summary, research tends to support Sullivan's assumptions that having an imaginary playmate is a normal, healthy experience. It is neither a sign of pathology nor a result of feelings of loneliness and alienation from other children. Indeed preschool and school-age children with an imaginary friend tend to be more creative, imaginative, intelligent, and sociable than children who do not have an imaginary companion.

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