Sometimes adults face a situation where a child begins to talk about a “friend” that does not exist in reality. At one or another stage of growing up, a large number of children have experience with having an illusory friend. At first it may seem funny, but the feeling of anxiety grows with time. Is it not dangerous? Maybe it’s a symptom of a deviation? Nowadays, there is a growing number of evidence that having imaginary friends isn’t only far from harmful, but can actually be beneficial. According to study children with imaginary companions tend to have better performance in theory of mind and emotional understanding than children without ones. (Taylor et al., 2004). The other interesting point is how parenting style influences theory of mind performance – there are strong positive links with authoritative, and strong negative links with authoritarian styles of parenting revealed. (O’Reilly, Peterson, 2014). My point of interest is whether the fact of presence of an imaginary friend in childhood can interconnects with parental style of discipline in regard to child’s theory of mind performance. Can “cultivating” and inhibiting child’s behavioral patterns in pretend plays and imaginary friends’ involvement potentially increase the child’s abilities in predicting and explaining other people’s emotional reactions?
The potential utility of the present study could be:
1) Expanded literature review
2) Addition to current knowledge about the connection of pretense play and imaginary friends and theory of mind skills
3) Addition to current knowledge about the connection of parenting styles and theory of mind skills
Those are two variables we will be working with:
1) The level of children’s ability to predict and explain other people’s emotional states
2) Two types of the parents’ reaction on the presence of imaginary friend – inhibiting the tendencies in case of authoritative parenting style and no change of attitude in case of authoritarian parenting.
Based on the previous research and theoretical background, results that I would be expecting are that the children of parents with authoritative style of disciplining, acknowledging the presence of the imaginary friends, engaging them into plays and conversation will be showing higher results at theory of mind tasks in the re-test after 6 months gap than children of authoritarian styled parents inhibiting the freedom of the child and his tendencies to speak about his or her imaginary friend.
The presence of imaginary friends always seems a sign of uniqueness, it seems to distinguish the child from the rest in all respects, therefore this phenomenon became the center of interest of researchers. An imaginary friend who is a hero of fictional stories suggests a rich imagination and higher creativity. Studies in general, this is confirmed – for example, children with imaginary friends are more creative on the scale of fluency of ideas; they can make up more alternative uses for basic items such as a pen, a newspaper, a brick etc. (Hoff, 2005).
As mentioned above, children with imaginary companions tend to perform better in theory of mind tasks. In one study, conducted in order to evaluate the impact of age, gender and the presence of imaginary friend on children’s emotional understanding, imaginary companions factor explained 38% of emotion understanding regardless of age, even though among girls this tendency was more frequent. It is suggested, that the presence of imaginary friends create more settings, bigger range of scenarios, that allows children to “practice’ their abilities to comprehend and predict emotional states of others. (Gimenes-Dasi, Pons, Bender, 2014). Having imaginary friends in childhood may also suggest influencing the person’s future adult life; adults recalling having an imaginary companion in childhood scored higher than the group that did not on measures of creativity, absorption, and achievement. (Kidd, Rogers, Rogers, 2010)
However, parents’ attitude towards pretend play and imaginary friends can vary. When surveyed about their children’s pretend play, their attitudes toward pretend games, and the environments created by parents to their children’s pretense, results revealed that parents do either facilitate or not pretend games and imaginary friends’ involvement depending on their beliefs and attitudes
about its value. (Gleason, 2005) Parental behaviors are considered to be important even in regard to children’s creation of imaginary companions in the first place. According to studies, mothers of children with imaginary companions were less likely to interfere with their child’s behaviors at their age of six months than those of children without ones. It is suggested, that parental intrusiveness may block children’s fantasy play; less intrusive mothers might allow their children to play in a more free and spontaneous way, that consequently lets their children to interact with a fantasy friend. (Motoshima, Shinohara, Todo, Moriguchi, 2015)
In this study, we will be working with a quantitative longitudinal research design. The longitudinal aspect is needed to trace whether the effect of parental influence will be visible in children’s theory of mind performances over time.
The sample will consist of preschool children aged 4-5 years and their parents. The sample size will be computed via G*Power program. The search of potential participants will be conducted in local kindergartens or preschools so it is supposed that the children will be going through normally paced development process without mental delays or any sort of mental issues. The ideal scenery will be having children from complete families with both parents and no harsh precipitating events that could potentially affect the child’s skills in emotions prediction and explanation; the options of controlling it need to be considered.
The study will be conducted supported by three instruments to collect data. Those are:
1) Measurement of parenting style – Block’s Child Rearing Practices Report. This report consists of 91 items that describe such types of parenting patterns as encouragement of independence, punishment, induction, emphasis on achievement, inhibition of affection, and emphasis on conformity. In the modified approach the parenting styles were re-conceptualized based on these items and the indices of authoritative and authoritarian styles were extracted. (Kochanska, Kuczynski, Radke-Yarrow, 1989)
2) Imaginary Companion Questionnaire (Taylor, Carlson, 2004) for assessing children’s imaginary friend’s status both from children themselves and their parents separately to trace the consistence between responses. It will be conducted in an interview form.
3) Emotion Prediction and Explanation task created by developed by Gnepp and Chilamkurti (1988) to assess the extent to which children predict and explain another person’s emotional reactions in terms of personality traits. In this task children are given series of stories depicting certain character’s life event and required to (a) predict and (b) explain the character’s emotional reaction to a new situation.
The additional instrument will be an open-ended questions diary given to parents to report weekly how their child was showing tendencies to engage the imaginary friend into his life and how the parent was responding to that to trace the consistency of parents following of the instruction. It can play a role of an elimination tool for excluding participants that had not been involved enough from the final analysis.
The number of participants most optimal for the study will be calculated in G*Power. Our target audience is preschoolers and their parents, therefore the ideal direction for searching potential participants will be kindergartens. Parents will be informed about the research – the announcement will specifically indicate the interest of researchers in working with children with imaginary friends and parents of those will be invited to participate on a volunteer basis. The age group of children is preschoolers (4-5 years).
Parents interested in participating will be invited to a brief meeting, during which they will be informed about what the authors of the study are interested in, that the findings will help them to better understand their children; in other words, about the research objectives and conditions, in particular, about what requirements will be presented to them.
The first step will be assessing parents style of discipline. Parents with authoritative parenting style inclination will be asked to become as involved as it is possible to their children’s pretend plays, try to include the imaginary companion the child created. It’s more expected from people with authoritative style of parenting to be more engaged with their child, have more open dialogues so it’s expected to be more natural for them to “cultivate” the imaginary friend’s presence in day to day life situations. Authoritarian parents will not be asked to change their attitudes. Both groups of parents will be given diaries with open end questions to report weekly how often their child was showing tendencies to engage the imaginary friend into his life and how the parent was responding to that.
Next step will be working with children, and following measurement tools will be used: Imaginary Companion Questionnaire, Children’s Fantasy Inventory and finally, Emotion Prediction and Explanation task.
The re-test of children’s Emotion Prediction and Explanations skills will be conducted again after 6 months gap period along with the Imaginary Companion Questionnaire to indicate the status of the imaginary companion at the current time.
Since the aspect that interests the most is whether parental intervention into pretense play with imaginary friends can influence the theory of mind performance in children, it depends upon the their consistency to a very high extent which is not easy to control, and the end question will be whether the result we receive is a representation of this factor to the bigger extent and no other influences such as child’s natural process of growing and becoming more mature in a way of understanding people. Another issue is keeping all the participants in the study; especially considering that the age group is preschoolers it is needed to make sure that the study is started at the season before the children are supposed to leave the preschool/kindergarten and move to elementary school.