Lots of children have imaginary friends, something which is generally frowned upon by adults and seen as a bad thing. But now, a study published in Experimental Child Psychology has shown that young children’s habit of talking to imaginary friends develops their inner dialogue that helps them to deal with challenging tasks now and later as adults.

Credits: Yuta Onoda

Credits: Yuta Onoda

Previous research has shown that children often talk loudly when playing before age 7, with their screams and outbursts becoming more and more internalized, and also, it has been shown that inner dialogue, or verbalized thought can improve children’s abilities on numerous cognitive tasks, such as solving puzzles and planning ahead.

The study has shown that conversing with adults can develop verbalized thought, but talking to “imaginary friends” does the same thing.

For this study, 148 children aged approximately 5 and their mothers participated in a pretend visit to an ice-cream parlor at a U.K. university lab decorated with toys, props, and of course, ice cream. After this visit, video cameras recorded the children playing on the floors with toys, as their mothers watched. Unintelligible mutterings and whisperings were categorized as private speech. In separate interviews, the children were asked if they were playing along other (imaginary) friends, and if yes, what were their names, age and gender.

Almost half of all children (46%) reported having imaginary companions and just over two-thirds of the friends were invisible; the mothers were also questioned, and half of them were aware of the imaginary friends. Children with imaginary companions made twice as many private-speech utterances during the free-play session, which researchers interpreted as a healthy development as inner dialogue.

Journal Reference.

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