An imaginary friend can be a friend to back your child up

Back in the day, having an imaginary friend was seen as problematic. Today it is viewed as cute, an imaginative and creative part of normal development, says Gwen Loughman
An imaginary friend can be a friend to back your child up
Úna with mum Olga Wehrly. Úna’s imaginary friend Dilly appeared shortly after her parents started living apart.

Rosemary’s daughter had a good friend called Murray who took up residence in a crack in the concrete.

Unfortunately for Niamh’s friend Fenella, she met a gory end. Her heart burst when she got sick.

Then there was Tara who hung out with Oscar, Polly, Jessica, Malcolm, and Linus.

Loretta’s daughter likes to recall the time her three brothers, Max, Tom, and Ginger, threw the family dog into the swimming pool.

Slightly alarming, these friends have one thing in common: They were all imaginary — mere figments of their creators’ very vivid imaginations. Murray was a spider.

As Murray indicates, imaginary friends can take on other guises. Ghostly imaginings are not uncommon either. Sadhbh has twin daughters who regularly mention ‘the girl under the floor’. In the interest of balance, they also have pet unicorns.

Back in the day, an imaginary friend was seen as possibly being the sign of a social or psychological problem. Today it is viewed as cute, an imaginative and creative part of normal development.

Aoife Lee, parent and life coach and founder of Parent Support (www.parentsupport.ie) says children between the ages of three and four years often can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality.

“It’s at this stage that they find their own companion and confidant — in the form of what we call an ‘imaginary friend’. There is no explanation as to why some children have animals, fairies, humans, or even ghosts as their I.F. It’s often all down to their own creative and unique imagination. Their imagination is in full flow and it comes out in the form of pretend play which is all about making up characters and stories while learning the important skill of empathy & problem solving.”

Olga Wehrly’s daughter Úna is three and her imaginary friend, Dilly, appeared just over a year ago.

“She’s been quite articulate for some time, so can clearly recount Dilly’s day-to-day activities. They mostly mirror her own — going to the supermarket, playing with her mama and learning to use the potty.

“On one occasion Úna left the room and returned pretending to be Dilly. She carried on in character for a few minutes, and then left the room, returning as herself. But she only crops up or is summoned by Úna herself who has control of Dilly’s appearance and schedule.”

Luke Comey and mum Elizabeth. Imaginary dog Mr Nobody not pictured.
Luke Comey and mum Elizabeth. Imaginary dog Mr Nobody not pictured.

Luke Comey is six. His imaginary friend is a very dapper black and yellow dog called Mr Nobody, who sports a tux. Elizabeth, Luke’s mum, told me Mr Nobody came into being when her son was two and a half.

“I think Mr Nobody helps Luke when he is lonely. Also when bad things are happening in the world, he tries to understand them through Mr Nobody. Mr.Nobody is forever dying or he breaks a leg or loses an arm.

“We were following the French terrorist attacks on the news and Luke told me that Mr Nobody was there and hiding in another dog’s house.”

Lee moves to reassure that it is all a very normal and natural stage of development, “particularly at times when children seek comfort, when they want to express themselves or even make sense of the world”.

Tara O’Donohoe, play therapist with Forward Steps, Douglas, Co Cork, reiterates that imaginary play is very important for a number of reasons.

“It helps the child to learn expressively and receptively. It also helps to resolve trauma’s, anxieties and behavioural issues as play is the child natural form of communication.”

Dilly came into Úna’s life shortly after her parents started living apart.

“In some ways I wonder if Úna is using Dilly to process family living situations and differing family dynamics,” says Olga. “She doesn’t remember the three of us under one roof, but we constantly tell her stories about it and show her pictures, and I wonder if this has been woven into the narrative of Dilly. Dilly is a happy child, and Úna tells me about her achieving similar goals at the same time, or struggling with new milestones in a anaglous fashion. Úna might say ‘I’m a big girl now and I use the potty, but Dilly did a wee wee in her pants at school today’.”

Lee moves to reassure parents: “As a parent, when we first start to hear our children mention their little imaginary pal, for many it’s hard to know what to say or do. Often understanding where imaginary friends come from and why, can help us manage and figure out how to support our little ones.”

It might become very tiresome when your child is still insisting three months later that you set a place at the table for their imaginary friend or breaks into a hysterical meltdown because you sat on them, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. As they get older and ‘real-life’ experiences begin to unfold, their imaginary friend will naturally and organically fall to the wayside.

With the exception of the family dog being flung in the pool, imaginary friends can be great house guests.

Elizabeth says: “I was made set a place at the table for a few years and Mr Nobody lived in the attic but he seems to travel around more and the conversations are getting less and less about him.”

Úna with mum Olga Wehrly. Úna’s imaginary friend Dilly appeared shortly after her parents started living apart.
Úna with mum Olga Wehrly. Úna’s imaginary friend Dilly appeared shortly after her parents started living apart.

Olga says Dilly is talked about to most people but never ‘appears’ in the same house: “Like the proverbial imaginary friend who sits at the kitchen table, it’s always slightly more abstract — someone Úna will see in the future.”

Imaginary friends make ideal house guests, but can become very tiresome very quickly if Mr Unicorn likes to regularly flood the bathroom or has a tendency to use lipsticks to draw on the wall or the keys to sketch on daddy’s car. Expert advice is to approach and treat the imaginary friend in the same manner you would your child. Lee says it is important to have boundaries firmly put in place.

“While empathy and acknowledging your child’s feelings are key, no matter how loyal they are to their imaginary friend children need to know what behaviours are unacceptable and what the consequences are if they over step the line.

“Real friends become a big part of their lives where they want to fit in and as they reach eight and nine this is the age where they form and sustain their long term friendships. In the meantime, try and embrace this stage in your child’s life, it may be an opportunity to communicate by listening and chatting about how they may be feeling, what they may be worried about all through the medium of their imaginary friend.”

Elizabeth is seeing this already with Mr Nobody: “I think it is very cute and I know he is fading away. It will be like losing a family member.”

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