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When Your Child's Best Friend Is Make-Believe

Plosheye was my brother's best friend and the two would talk by phone for hours, while my parents watched, and grinned. Once in awhile I asked for a turn, but my attempts at conversation were met with silence. He's shy, my mother would say. He doesn't like you, my brother would declare. Eventually it occurred to me that he didn't actually exist.
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Plosheye would never speak to me. I admit now, many decades after the fact, that I took this more than a little personally. Plosheye was my brother's best friend and the two would talk by phone for hours, while my parents watched, and grinned, and even filmed the chats every once in awhile. Sometimes, with great fanfare, they would hand the phone to me, but my attempts at conversation were met with silence. He's shy, my mother would say. He doesn't like you, my brother would declare. It took awhile before it occurred to me that he didn't actually exist.

Perhaps because Plosheye spurned me, I have long been fascinated by children and their imaginary friends. Experts don't call them that, I've learned. To child development researchers they are "imaginary others", or "imaginary companions", and without them there would be a gap in psychological science, yes, but also in literature (what was Winnie The Pooh if not Christopher Robin's imaginary pal) and film -- think Harvey the Rabbit, or, on a more disturbing note, Tony in "The Shining" or Charles in "A Beautiful Mind." It is those last few, of course, that unsettles parents when they see their children start to talk to a companion who can't talk back. Is it adorable or creepy, we wonder, when your toddler befriends an idea?

To clear up some of your concerns (and to charm you a bit...) here is a short primer on imaginary companions:

There are two different kinds -- those parents can see, and those they can't. What makes a friend imaginary is whether they "interact" with your child, not whether they physically exist. Those based on tangible items -- like stuffed animals or characters in books and videos -- are more likely found in younger children. Pals created completely from imagination are more likely to appear as children get older.

Most children have them. Studies consistently find that 65 percent of children develop imaginary friends between the ages of 3 and 5, nearly a third through age 7. Those are the numbers for all companions lumped together. If you only count the ones who are not based on existing toys, then 37 percent of children have them.

They serve a variety of roles in a child's development. The NYU Child Study Center describes the creation of these companions as "the product of a creative and curious mind figuring out how to make sense of the widening world." Marjorie Taylor, the University of Oregon professor who is one of the leading voices in the field, and who runs a website that is all about imaginary friends, says one of the many reasons for their existence is as a shield against fear. ""Children can walk confidently past a scary dog when there is an invisible tiger at their side," she writes. Others researchers have looked at how these pals help children to "try out different relationships at a critical point in their social development," or "allow children to explore issues of control, discipline and power with the anxiety attached to interactions with real authority figures," or just have have "fun."

Don't worry, your kids know these friends aren't real. In an article titled "Imaginary Companions: Pretending to Be Real But Knowing They Are Not," Taylor and co-author Candice M. Mottweiler, concluded that the existence of imaginary friends in a child's life "demonstrates their knowledge of reality, rather than confusion about it." Of the 86 kids interviewed in one study, for instance, only one seemed at all unsure about whether their pal was just pretend.

Children are better off because of them. Among the conclusions of research into children with imaginary companions are: "those who have them more able to see things from someone else's perspective;" "children who pretend and imagine usually are healthier emotionally as adults"; "these children are likely to be less shy and have more real life friends."

Which doesn't mean you should never worry. According to the NYU Child Study Center you should do that when "a child... avoids meaningful interaction with other kids, preferring to play exclusively with an invented friend." That may be a sign of "psychological distress," she site says, and you should consider professional advice.

Boys and girls are different. More girls than boys have imaginary friends. And the way children play with these friends is different, too. Girls tend to replicate social and family interactions, while boys lean toward superhero, action and adventure play.

Birth order plays a role. Children who are the oldest sibling or an only child are more likely to spend time with an imaginary companion, perhaps as a placeholder until the real thing comes along.

Imaginary companions hang around much longer than you think. Experts used to think that these friendships peaked at age 3 or 4 and were over by age 7. But new studies suggest that companions are not uncommon up to the age of 12. It just might be that kids stop talking to their parents about the friends, not that they stop talking to the friends.

Studying imaginary friends for a living is a delightful line of work.What other type of research allows you to pepper your journal articles with characters like these: Baintor, "a very small invisible boy who is completely white and lives in the white light of a lamp"; Cream, "a tiny invisible baby who lives on the child's hand"; Nobby, "a 160-year-old invisible businessman who visited the child between business trips to Portland and Seattle whenever the child wanted to talk things over"; and Dipper, "an invisible flying dolphin who lived on a star, never slept and was very very very fast."

You remember your own imaginary companions for a very long time. When I started writing this piece I texted my brother -- now a grown up who happens to be a psychiatrist-- to ask how to spell the name of his pal, which, I realized, I had never actually seen written down. Was it Ploshi? Ploushaye? Plashaye? He shot back an answer. "What kind of writer are you?" he asked. "Of COURSE it's Plosheye." Yes, of course, it is.

And when the HuffPostParents page raised the subject on Facebook recently, we received a lot of tales about imaginary friends our readers had as children (or their children had long, long ago) who clearly still loomed large and memorable.

"None for my kids yet," wrote Tracey Zilkie, "but my brother had one named 'boy tookey. One day he pulled 'girl tookey' out of my ear so I could have an imaginary friend. I didn't like that i'dea, and threw her out the car window-Jesse was mortified I did that, and my mom had no idea how to console him. Two days later he found her in the toilet, and proudly gave her back to me stating 'She's yours, and you HAVE to keep her now!'. I don't remember 'girl tookey', just the drama around her existence, but my brother sure does remember those two characters!

Brian Wendel wrote: "I had three imaginary friends -- until my younger brothers were born -- named 'George' .. 'Hermie Hat' .. 'Muggy' .. they were very real .. and my mother would set places for us at lunch + snack time + tea .. and they were a REAL part of my life .. and everyone knew their names + the distinct personalities I had created for each."

Finally, Brenda Baron tells us there is always the chance that the imaginary friend will grow up to be real. She writes: "My daughter had an imaginary friend when she was three his name was mark when she started school her friend became a boy named mark 20 yrs later she married mark and they have a beautiful little girl,,i always think wow i knew you when you were imaginary."

What imaginary pals have lived at you house? What purpose have they played in your child's life?
In yours?