Autonomy and control in children's interactions with imaginary companions

Marjorie Taylor, Stephanie M. Carlson, Alison B. Shawber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Although many children describe their imaginary companions as primarily friendly and compliant, imaginary companions can also be experienced as unfriendly, mean, bossy, aggressive, and/or frightening. Such negative accounts of imaginary companions suggest that children do not always experience their imaginary companions as completely under control. In this chapter we report a study investigating the extent of negative characteristics in children's descriptions of imaginary companions. The participants were 89 preschool children who described their imaginary companions (46 invisible friends and 43 personified objects). The descriptions were coded for disobedient or otherwise difficult behaviour attributed to the imaginary companions. Thirty-six per cent of the children described their imaginary companions as consistently compliant and agreeable, 35 per cent gave some indication that the imaginary companions did not always do or say what the children wanted, although they were mostly friendly and compliant, and 29 per cent described their imaginary companions as noncompliant in ways that suggested the children experienced the companion to some extent as being out of their conscious control. Three reasons for some children's experience of lack of control over their imaginary companions were discussed: noncompliance as an emotive, illusion of independent agency, and individual differences in inhibitory control. Noncompliant and/or troublesome imaginary companions occur frequently enough to be considered normative, and provide insight into what is on children's minds as well as how children process information that is generated in imagination versus what is perceptually experienced.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)81-100
Number of pages20
JournalProceedings of the British Academy
StatePublished - Dec 1 2007
Externally publishedYes


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