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Bruce R. Klein

A B S T R A C T : The article explores the use of the imaginary companion by normal children, two to five years of age. Some existing literature on the imaginary companion is reviewed. Three case presentations demonstrate the use of the imaginary companion and its effect on ego development. Major findings are the prevalence of the mechanism of splitting and the use of the imaginary companion as transitional phenomenon by the children. An ensuing discussion relates an object relations understanding of the normal developmental use of splitting and transitional phenomena to the case presentations. The imaginary companion is viewed as a transitional self on the developmental lines of narcissism and object relations.

INTRODUCTION It was bedtime, Chris and his father sat side by side on Chris' bed. "Alexander was a p r e t t y bad horse today," Chris said. His father lit his pipe. "Alexander, the red horse with green stripes?" Chris nodded. "What happened?" Chris' father asked. "He wouldn't eat his c e r e a l . . , spilled his m i l k . . , got scared [at the other k i d s ] . . . Alexander was cross all afternoon." "Did he t ake his nap?" Chris' father asked. "He says horses don't take naps. They just play with t hei r toys. He wouldn't tie his s h o e l a c e s . . , jumped all over the c o u c h . . , got angry and kicked my fire engine and broke the wheel off of i t . . . splashed w at er all over the b a t h r o o m . . , and wouldn't brush his t e e t h . . . Daddy, w hat are we going to do about Alexander? He's awfully bad sometimes." "I [think] he just had a bad day." He helped Chris wriggle down in bed and handed him his big brown bear. "And I t h i n k anybody can have a bad day once in a w h i l e - - e v e n a red horse with green stripes." He tucked the covers in and kissed Chris on the nose. "You wait," he said, "Alexander will be a wonderful horse tomorrow." He t urned out the bedroom light. "And you'll be a wonderful little boy, too." (Littledale, 1964) Anyone who has paid attention to the play of small children has had the opportunity to share a private world where anyt hi ng can happen. In
9 1985 Human Sciences Press




the play we see consistent paradox which can only be explained by the acceptance of the child's own world of possibilities. Rules are made by the inventor of the game, and these rules can be overridden only with his consent. Imaginative characters can have powers beyond that of any real persons, characters can die, only to be reborn later, and what was true for one day need not be true tomorrow. It is with this license of childhood, in which what is real and what is imagined overlap, that the child sorts out his own relative subjectivity from the objectivity of his environment. It is in this world of paradox that the imaginary companion emerges. This article explores the nature of the imaginary companion, its function for the child, and its role in ego development. After some background information, three examples of children who are experiencing an imaginary companion are presented. The observation of these children, normal three to five year olds, leads to a discusion of their conspicuous use of the mechanism of splitting. A discussion ensues which explains the reliance on splitting and the function served by the companion as transitional phenomenon.

BACKGROUND Imaginary companions in children have been observed and reported both in the descriptive and dynamic literature for over 50 years (Hurlock & Burnstein, 1932). Their fabrication by children is seen by many observers as a normal stage of development (Nagera, 1969) during which the mechanism of projection is active (Schaefer, 1969). The companion is invisible to anyone except the child creating it; in this respect, it is unlike a companion toy, such as a doll, in that it has no apparent objective basis (Svendsen, 1934). Nevertheless, most authors accept the imaginary companion not as an hallucination but more as an invisible character who is a projection of the child. The comparion has an air of reality for the child, but most children appear in control of the fantasy and have good reality testing (Schaefer, 1969). Incidence of imaginary companions varies depending on the researcher, from 13% (Svendsen, 1934) to 31% of the population (Hurlock & Burnstein, 1932). Belief in them occurs mostly among two- to six-yearolds, though it is also common among 9- and 10-year-olds (Nagera, 1969), Sperling, 1954. Children who believe in them are often firstborn or only children (Manosevitz, Prentice, & Bergman, 1973), more often boys than girls (Svendsen, 1932), and often intelligent and creative (Meyers, 1979; Schaefer, 1969). In terms of dynamic development, the imaginary companion has been seen as an important aid in both ego and superego development (Nagera, 1969; Sperling, 1954). Utilizing ego defenses of projection, iden-



tification, and control, the companion's role in ego development has been identified by several authors (Block, 1979; Myers, 1976). As Nagera points out, the younger child needs external controls before the superego is fully established. The imaginary companion provides an intermediate step between external control and a fully developed superego structure. The ego function of impulse control is thus enhanced through use of the companion as scapegoat, thereby allowing identification with parental figures. Selma Fraiberg (1959) gives a marvelous illustration of the use of the imaginary companion with the little boy, Stevie, who creates his companion, Gerald. When Stevie has done a misdeed such as breaking his father's pipe, an irresistable impulse which by now Stevie knows is wrong, he blames the act on Gerald. In the ensuing months there are m a n y instances of Stevie blaming Gerald for his (their) misconduct. The importance of Stevie making the distinction between the good behavior, which his parents expect, and the bad behavior, which he cannot control, should not be underestimated. Later, Stevie comes to reprimand Gerald much like his parents have reprimanded Stevie. He has begun to identify with his parents and their prohibitions. Another important function for the imaginary companion is its role as transitional phenomenon, neither all real nor all imaginary. To understand the companion better, it is necessary to understand what is meant by the transitional zone of experience. In Winnicott's landmark paper, "Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena" (1953), introduced is the concept of transitional phenomena as an intermediate area of experience between inner and outer reality which is allowed to the infant or to the adult artist, but which may be considered madness in others. A common transitional object is a soft, cuddly, tactile object such as a baby blanket or teddy bear, but Winnicott offers intangible phenomena (such as babbling behavior before bedtime) as examples of transitional phenomena, bridging inner and outer reality and offering soothing during developmental transitions. In fact, it has been postulated that these objects and behaviors are a series of narcissistic guardians which protect the developing self from injury and aid in transition from one stage of development to another (Bensen & Pryor, 1973). Both imaginary companions and transitional objects occur in response to loss (Lasker, 1977), the latter representing the loss of mother, the former, the loss of omnipotent control of reality. The movement toward self and object constancy involves partial loss of infantile control of the world and is thus viewed as a narcissistic injury. The acceptance of reality includes a major shift in psychic structure on the road to self and object constancy: from primary process thinking to secondary process; from part object representation to whole object representation (Mahler, Pine, & Bergman, 1975). While transitional objects include a representation of union of infant and mother, the imaginary com-



p a n i o n represents t h e self, which is no longer fused w i t h the object. W h e r e a s t h e t r a n s i t i o n a l object soothes, the i m a g i n a r y companion reassures, while m i r r o r i n g t h e self. It is as if the child stands in front of an i m a g i n a r y m i r r o r and reflects his fading o m n i p o t e n t ideal onto the imagin a r y companion. The generally loving feelings t h a t t h e child expresses tow a r d t h e companion, however n a u g h t i l y it m a y behave, reflect t h e libidinal cathexis of the self which m u s t be i n t e g r a t e d or surrendered. Toward this end (self a n d object constancy), the i m a g i n a r y companion serves as a t r a n s i t i o n a l self.


Mark is an alert four-year-old, the first born son of his 31-year-old parents. Mr. D., a physician, moved his family from New York when Mark was two years, nine months. Mark's mother gave birth to Mark's younger brother two months before the move. Six months after the birth of his brother, Mark--just shy of three years old--developed the imaginary companions, Roger and his dog, Flip. Mrs. D. describes Mark as being "bright" and "stubborn." She said that Mark was always "very bossy" and likes to make and enforce the rules of games. She feels that Mark is a sensitive child, but is not able to share his toys or time with his younger brother, now almost two years of age. Mrs. D. feels that after the birth of her second child, Mark tended to change his reactions to her; he seemed to withdraw from her more and seemed more attached to Mr. D. As an example of Mark's strong will, Mrs. B. describes a confrontation which occurred around the time of the birth of Mark's brother and immediately after the family's move (before the emergence of Flip and Roger). Mark was always a fussy eater but began to insist that he would eat only hot dogs and macaroni and cheese. His parents decided to hold firm and not give in to his demands. There ensued a battle for almost three days, with Mark refusing almost all food intake. Mrs. D. finally gave up the struggle, but recalls this incident as an example of their son's "stubbornness." Mrs. D. feels that the characters of Roger and his dog, Flip, may have come from a story book, but that Mark has developed their characters in closer alignment to his own. These two characters can do many things which are held to be unacceptable for Mark by his parents. According to Mark, Roger is a county sheriff, and Flip also wears police clothes and drives a police car. RogeL as described by Mark, "looks the same as me," can walk to the store by himself, can share his toys, and drive a car and a helicopter. In addition, Roger is not someone who has to take a nap, "but could stay up and watch TV all night." Overall, Mark declares, Roger is a good boy who is also four years old. Mark adds that although Roger is quite powerful, he, Mark, is the boss. Mark later described--and Mrs. D. confirmed--the recent emergence of another companion, Justin, who is Roger's friend. He "has the same face as me, same sneakers, and the same clothes." Mark later confided that Roger's and Flip's parents bothered them and that the parents have been turned into mice by a witch. Mark uses his imaginary companions as playmates and scapegoats, too. They are friendly companions when Mark is playing alone, and they have been known to



have caused such silly accidents as spilling milk. Mark says that he understands his companions to be "pretend," and according to his parents, he does not continually play with them. Yet, the companions do appear to help Mark deal with some of his angry impulses toward his parents and himself in a constructive, acceptable way. It is important to understand the child's ultimate control over the companion, which mirrors the child's struggle to control his impulses, some of them angry and unacceptable to the parents. Through the use of the companion, the child can split off these unacceptable grandiose and aggressive feelings onto an object of his creation who represents aspects of the child himself The child's unilateral control over the companion is an important aspect to consider. The companion is the total creation of the child. It is unlike a doll which has a tangible, objectively observable existance. The companion is visible, interpretable, subject to the authority of the child only. If there is some interference regarding the subjective nature of the imaginary companion, the child may drop the companion. Bensen and Pryor give the example of a little girl, Lynn, whose parents' participation with the companion (setting a place at the table, packing clothes for the companion for trips) did not affect the child's subjective role for the companion. Later, however, when Lynn's grandfather overstepped Lynn's control of the companion, by claiming that the companion magically closed the garage door (while unbeknownst to Lynn, grandfather was using a remote control device), Lynn dropped the use of her imaginary companion. Bensen and Pryor maintain that once the companion had lost the function of mirroring Lynn, and had taken on a new function, apart from Lynn's narcissistic needs, it no longer could play the role of narcissistic guardian. When control of the companion was lost, it was abandoned. (Bensen & Pryor, 1973). It is no easy task to determine at what point intrusion into the fantasy can have this effect. Probably, a low-keyed response on the part of parents will not disturb the feeling of being in control of the fantasy. Yet, it is felt that a too active participation can shatter the fantasy. A child, Sharon, observed by this author, had two imaginary companions. At the height of the life of the companions, the family visited the grandparents, who live in another city. Sharon's mother recalls how "grandfather would get into playing" with the companions and would vividly and realistically engage with the companions. When the family returned to their home after the visit, the companions had disappeared. According to Sharon's mother, "It was like she lost control of her friends."

Karen, a three-year, nine-month-old child, is described by her mother as friendly and outgoing but possessing an impressive temper. She is a "perfectionist, like her daddy." She achieved normal developmental milestones and has good social relations with her peer group at nursery school. When Karen was seventeen months old, her father died of a sudden illness. Mrs. M. observed no noticeable reactions by Karen to her father's death, except that Karen became increasingly sensitive to her mother's feelings, getting upset when mother did. When Mrs. M. began dating a man, four months after the death of her husband, Karen reacted negatively to his presence. When she was about two years, nine months old, Karen began to talk with her imaginary companions, Jeff and Julia. As Karen explained it, Jeff and Julia are four and five years old, respectively (Mr. and Mrs. M. were also one year apart). They were married in a nearby town. Karen feels that Jeff is always being a bad boy, while Julia is sometimes good.



They often hold hands and Karen states that, "when Julia holds Jeff's hands it feels good." They usually listen to her, Karen, but if they do not, she might have to spank them. Karen went on to generalize that girls are usually good and that boys are usually bad. Jeff and Julia seem to represent many things, including the maintenance of a dyadic bond which Karen has experienced as threateningly tenuous. She enjoys the company of Jeff and Julia and frequently talks to them, sometimes in a friendly manner, sometimes scoldingly. But Jeff and Julia are not seen separately. When asked to explain further about Jeff and Julia, Karen explains that they are really imaginary, that "they're ghosts, not there." In addition to Jeff and Julia, other companions such as Happy and Maddy appear from time to time. Each represents a specific, one-dimensional emotion or state of being, split off from the whole, Karen. Bensen and Pryor (1973) have likened the function of the imaginary companion to one of "mirroring" for the child. It is as though the children interviewed are standing in front of a full-length mirror trying on different attributes, some of which are projected onto the companion. The child continues to love his mirror image, despite its shortcomings. In the process, the child's ego gains confidence and control over impulses. This mirroring off, or splitting off, of certain attributes can be seen as one of normal development before the ego has achieved self and object constancy. Two manifestations of splitting organization in Karen have been documented. She developed sets of companions: Jeff and Julia, Happy and Maddy. The task of organization of the outer and inner world is one which the infant will take years to accomplish. The myriad of thoughts and feelings will be gradually integrated. But before the child ventures onto the road to self and object constancy, he or she will less subtly organize the world. Karen uses her companions to organize her world. In Jeff and Julia she allows a replaying of her parents' lives under her own control, for she has ultimate control over the companions. To Jeff, and all males, Karen attributes the bad feelings caused by her abandoning father. Julia, and girls in general (Karen and her mother specifically), are "sometimes good." In the characters of Happy and Maddy, Karen shows her continued use of splitting, as she cannot yet integrate her feelings, including ambivalence.

Allen is the third and youngest boy of Mr. and Mrs. N., an attorney and a poet respectively. The two older boys are highly verbal, intelligent, and successful. Allen, five years, seven months at the time of the interview, had been a planned caesarean delivery; he walked and talked at normal ages. In social relationships, Allen seems somewhat less than confident, appearing younger than his age. He was slow at toilet training, and Mrs. N., indicated that there are still some problems with it. Mr. and Mrs. N. had tried in many ways to help their child to socialize more with other children. Mrs. N. says that Allen has a good sense of humor, yet he makes friends slowly. Allen enjoys playing alone, and often engages in imaginative play with toy animals. Allen will often play with his brothers, while at other times he plays with Gerry, his imaginary companion. No one is sure when Gerry began to appear. Allen's mother describes Gerry as a "regular human being." Gerry owns a fighter airplane, but according to Allen, it is he (Allen) who flies it. Clearly, Gerry is a good guy who can do a lot of things that Allen would like to do. Mr. N. explains that there are sometimes "two Allens. One refuses to connect with people. If you ask him a question like 'Do you want a cookie?' he'll fool around and say 'I want a hundred cookies.'" Mr. N. indi-



cared that it was very difficult to get a straight answer from his son. However, recently, the second Allen has been surfacing. He is much more connected and will give straight answers. This has coincided with Allen's going to kindergarten. He has become "much more organized and sensible, less silly." As he has become more organized, Gerry has become less prominent. It is with the first Allen that Gerry appears. According to Mr. N., "Gerry is only in the refusal-to-connect mood." He offered an example. Recently, when socializing with neighbors, a difficult task but one which Allen would like to do (and which his parents would also like), Allen was acting shy and refused to answer questions directly. Shortly, Allen announced that Gerry could answer people. Allen became engaged and was able to participate in the conversation better. Gerry, representing a split off part of Allen's ideal, good self, had begun to be integrated into Allen.

DISCUSSION It is onto the image of the imaginary companion t h a t the child projects his ideals, his fears, his aggression, and his love. It appears t h a t the companion plays the part of a split off, mirror-image of an aspect of the child. To understand the conspicuous use of splitting, a discussion of its developmental significance is essential. In its earliest point of development, the ego makes little distinction between self and object representatives. This fusion of self and object finds the child in the illusionary fantasy t h a t he is or can be part of the object (Jacobson, 1964). Through maturation and development, a gradual differentiation of self and object occurs, with aspects of the self reflecting traits t a k e n over from the object. Even as self and object undergo differentiation (Mahler, et al., 1975), the self and the object are themselves split into a good self and a bad self, a good object and bad object (Kernberg, 1966). Theoretically, the good and bad are kept apart initially as a way of organizing the world, but later are so for defensive purposes. Melanie Klein's experience with children leads to her development of concepts which are central to object relations theory. She describes two stages of development, which she names "positions": the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive position. While she describes the major defense for the depressive position as repression, a major achievement and p r i m a r y defense for the paranoid-schizoid position is splitting. Central to the notion of splitting is Klein's contention t h a t it is an early defensive m a n e u v e r to mitigate anxiety (in this case, annihilation anxiety). Later, theorists including Kernberg (1966) and Mahler (1975) indicate t h a t splitting is first organizational and later defensive. H a n n a Segal states t h a t "Melanie Klein saw t h a t little children, under the spur of anxiety, were constantly trying to split their objects and their feelings and trying to retain good feelings and introject good objects, while expelling bad objects and projecting bad feelings" (Segal, 1964, p. 3).



The paranoid-schizoid position reflects the child's anxiety that the bad will invade and annihilate him or her (paranoid) and the subsequent utilization of splitting (schizoid) to defend against this. Though there are situations, according to Klein, where the good may be projected and the bad introjected, the effect is the same. Though splitting is viewed by Klein as defensive, it has the effect of an organizing agent for the child. One of the achievements of the paranoid-schizoid position is splitting. It is splitting which allows the ego to emerge out of chaos and to order its experiences. This ordering of experience which occurs with the process of splitting into a good and bad object, however excessive and extreme it may be to begin with, nonetheless orders the universe of the child's emotional and sensory impressions and is a precondition of later integration . . . . Splitting is also the basis for what later becomes repression. (Segal, 1964, p. 35) With an ample number of experiences that are fairly positive, the child wilt grow out of the paranoid-schizoid position. Repeated identifications with the good object enhance the ego's capacity to cope with anxiety. As active projection lessens, preparing for integration of positive and negative representations, the way toward the depressive position is paved. Klein describes the depressive position as that stage of development in which the infant recognizes a whole object, and relates to it. It is the recognition that "good" and "bad" reside in the same, whole object. Mahler would later describe this as object constancy (Mahler, et al., 1975). The child's psychological awareness of separateness from the object leads to greater reality testing. As the ego becomes better organized and split off projections are weakened, repression replaces splitting as a primary defense. Though other writers disagree on the timetable for this shift of positions (Klein felt that the depressive position begins in the oral phase of development), the concepts which Melanie Klein pioneered are very much woven into the fabric of later theorists (Kernberg, 1966). Kernberg's work with adult patients with borderline personality disorders leads to his formulations of splitting. He views splitting as organizational at first and later as a defense against anxiety. He accepts Jacobson's (1964) findings that the earliest introjections of self and object images are not yet differentiated. As aspects of self and objects are introjected, the "affective coloring" of the introjections determines how they are to be organized. Positive introjections such as loving mother-child contact tend to fuse with the "good internal object." Introjections such as the frustrating interactions of mother and child take place under a negative valence and become organized as "bad internal objects" (Kernberg, 1966, p. 241). Kernberg's stages of development, which follow, are quite consistent



with Mahler's (1975), with some variance in timetable: Normal Autism, Normal Symbiosis, Differentiation of Self from Object Representatives, Integration. He states that it is at around three or four months of life that the splitting processes begin, with positive self-objects (still fused) split from negative self-objects. Later, splitting is less organizational, more defensive. "Positive" and "negative" introjections, that is, introjections with positive valence and negative valence respectively, are thus kept completely apart. They are kept apart at first because they happen separately and because of the lack of capacity of the ego for integration of introjections not activated by similar valence, but then gradually, in response to anxiety, because of the ego's active use of this separation for defensive purposes. This is actually the origin of splitting as a mechanism of defense. (Kernberg, 1966, p. 244) During the next stage of development, Differentiation of Self from Object-Representations, the task of differentiating self from object is partially achieved, and though there is increasing separation of self from object representations, the ego maintains the split of"good self .... good object," "bad self"/"bad object." Active splitting here is defensive, keeping the positive from contamination of negative representations. At around the latter part of the third year, stage 4, Integration begins. During this stage, we see the child experiencing others as whole objects where previously his experience was of"part objects." Libidinal and aggressively invested self representations are integrated into the same self representation, while positive and negative object images are invested into mature, integrated object representations. Alongside this integration, there is a broadening of affectual potential, modulation of affect, and the emergence of guilt feelings provoked by the developing superego. This corresponds to what Klein has described as the depressive position and what Mahler describes as a movement toward object constancy (Mahler, 1975). With the resolution of the Integration stage and the Oedipal Conflict, the synthetic function of the ego takes an accelerated development. Further, the consolidation of the ego establishes repression as a new central defensive operation, replacing splitting. Repression invokes the rejection of unacceptable impulses from the conscious ego, while splitting had allowed them into consciousness but had kept them apart. This crucial developmental leap from reliance on the defense of splitting to reliance on repression is not an easily traversed road. Temporary regression is likely and the fluidity of the ego toward progression and regression is well known (Blos, 1962). Given good enough experiences, however, the child will move to integrate the different affective states, and what were one-dimensional, part-object representations will become



whole objects. It is felt that the imaginary companion plays a helpful role in transition from one mode of experience to another. Its place as transitional phenomenon has already been stated. The task of reality acceptance is never completed, however, and there are other areas of major developmental transitions, each with its own needs and its own narcissistic guardian. Some authors suggest three nodal points for the young child: at three months of age, at eight months and at two years, through separation and individuation (Hong, 1978). Other times of transition may occur at the Oedipal stage, at puberty, and, in certain cases, during climacterium (Bychowski, 1956). The child's movement from part object representations to object constancy between the age of two and five is such a nodal point. Coinciding with a time of increased intellectual functioning and increased reality testing, the paradox of the imaginary companion is appropriate and creative. The companion serves the child as a transitional self which mirrors and externalizes aspects of his or her self representations. Narcissism, the libidinal-cathexis of self representations, is the developmental line along which the imaginary companion plays a distinct function: helping the child move toward self-constancy. Life during this stage is extremely stressful and frustrating, with frequent mood shifts. The imaginary companion allows the child some respite from the depression of realizing a separate sense of self (and inherent loss of the love object). A major developmental leap occurs from preneurotic structuralization involving splitting, to a neurotic organization utilizing repression, with ego and superego functions more firmly in place. Why, then, at a time when overt splitting is fading and repression is in ascension, do the companions continue to represent split-off aspects of the self? It is felt that the splitting observed in the children is not a regression toward an earlier organization. The children are generally able to pull back from their fantasies (good enough reality testing) to demonstrate that the splitting is occurring at a higher level of organization. Once again, considering the fluidity of the ego, we notice progressions which contain remnants of the past. To consider the importance of the imaginary companion is to consider the importance of any kind of play or transitional phenomena. It is not only normal, but necessary for ego development to create the subjective/objective world where object constancy and narcissistic expansion are enriched. It is essential for adults, parents and helping professionals to appreciate this psychological priority. To allow the child this freedom of expansion to create his or her own coping mechanism, and to provide a good enough holding environment including reality testing, is to enable the child towards mental health.



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