Over the years, Tentacles has developed a personality—thoughtful, timid—and provided both physical and emotional comfort for Sasha, who suffers from chronic migraines. “She loves telling stories, and that’s one of the ways she manages pain,” Espinoza says. “She’ll talk about what’s happening in great detail and that really helps her.”
Read: Undercover teachers or imaginary friends?
The creatures of imagination have become a source of camaraderie for Sasha, who has autism, is homeschooled, and doesn’t often interact with other children.“They’re here to help me when I’m not feeling good and to talk to me when I'm lonely and Emily doesn’t want to play,” Sasha says, “and to go to space with me.”
Imaginary friends are a common—and normal—manifestation for many kids across many stages of development. In fact, by age 7, 65 percent of children will have had an imaginary friend, according to a 2004 study. Stephanie Carlson, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development and one of the study’s co-authors, says that the prime time for having imaginary friends is from the ages of 3 to 11.
While psychologists agree that the presence of imaginary friends should not cause parents concern, what is less understood is what prompts children to create these personas or why some kids invent them and others don’t, says Celeste Kidd, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and the primary investigator at the Kidd Lab, which studies learning throughout early development. “For the most part, there’s no widespread consensus on what triggers it,” Kidd told me. “There is, however, widespread consensus on it being a normative part of development. Not all kids have imaginary friends, but it’s very common and neither problematic nor a sign of extra intelligence.”
Imaginary friends are a symptom of developing social intelligence in a kid. For children to dream up peers, they must understand that people possess beliefs and desires and exhibit behaviors that differ from their own, a concept called “theory of mind,” Kidd said: “Understanding that somebody else can want something different than you want or can know something that you don’t know is something that doesn’t start to emerge until around 4 or 5.”
A handful of small studies have tried to dig into the psychology of kids with imaginary friends. One suggested that relationships with invisible beings fulfill a child’s need for friendship and are more common among firstborn or only children. Research has also suggested that girls are more likely to conjure imaginary friends and that kids who have imaginary friends grow up to be more creative adults than those who do not. In Carlson’s studies, she’s observed that little girls typically take on a nurturing, teacherlike role with their imaginary companions, who often take the form of baby animals or baby humans. Little boys’ imaginary friends are frequently characters who are more competent than they are, such as superheroes or beings with powers, she says.