Should you worry if your child has an imaginary friend in the towel cupboard?

Should you worry if your child has an imaginary friend in the towel cupboard

By
Jackie Cosh

PUBLISHED:

20:59 GMT, 18 April 2012

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UPDATED:

20:59 GMT, 18 April 2012

Before I had children, people were always very keen to give advice. But one situation they never prepared me for was for the time when Darrell, my then four-year-old son, insisted on being lifted up on to an imaginary horse named William Wallace.

We were taking a stroll through our village at the time, with people walking past. Who knows what they thought. But neither of us cared, as I lifted him a couple of foot into the air and then put him back down on to his ‘horse’. He was quite happy and off he trotted along the path.

Events like this are an all too common occurrence in our family. As well as having an imaginary horse, Darrell, now five, has three imaginary dogs — Ross Football, Ross Trampoline and Ross Bottlewing (a puppy who can fly and who he can describe in great detail).

Make believe: Jackie embraces Darrell's vivid imagination

Make believe: Jackie embraces Darrell's vivid imagination

Then there’s Laymar. Now Laymar started off well. He taught my son karate and lived neatly on the top of the wardrobe. As he’s over 6ft, I thought this was quite an accomplishment. But then he was sent to jail for arson (‘He burnt a house down, Mum!’) and we thought we had seen the last of him.

But he returned, hung around for a while and then was sent away again. This time the crime was murder. We didn’t make too big a deal of Laymar’s crimes. Our attitude was one of — oh no, Laymar has been pretty naughty, rather than one of worrying and psycho-analysing Laymar’s crimes. My son has showed no signs of being prone to arson or murder.

In fact, he appears to be the kind of child who makes friends easily. My husband had Darrell and his brother out with him one day when suddenly Darrell stopped and looked round. ‘Is that you, Nathan It’s me Darrell. Don’t you recognise me’ My husband and eldest son laughed nervously, unsure what was going on. Nathan, they soon discovered, was a blackbird.

Jackie had one friend that had an imaginary friend called Lizzie who lived in their bathroom towel box, handing out advice to him while he sat on the toilet

Jackie had one friend that had an imaginary friend called Lizzie who lived in their bathroom towel box, handing out advice to him while he sat on the toilet

‘Yes, it’s hard to tell them apart sometimes. They all look the same,’ said my husband. His response was met with a glare. Nathan obviously looked like an individual and nothing like the other blackbirds. Now when I’m out with him we look for Nathan and I am careful I don’t mistake another blackbird for him — only Darrell can recognise Nathan.

Darrell’s five now and he has had his various friends since he was three. He’s my third child and neither of the older two had imaginary friends.
Rather than being a worrying journey into the unknown, my husband and I view it as an exciting insight into a child’s mind. I can honestly say it has never bothered us. Before having children, I had heard of the concerns parents had about imaginary friends, what it was thought they indicated and how they should deal with them.

Some people still have a negative view of imaginary friends, and the reasons children have them. This is probably a throwback to the days of Dr Benjamin Spock, the American baby guru whose work was popular for much of the last century. His advice was that if by the age of four a child was still spending a large amount of their time talking to an imaginary friend, a child psychologist should be able to find out what they were lacking.

One in nine children in the Thirties
admitted to having an imaginary friend… Now the figure is two in three

One in nine children in the Thirties admitted to having an imaginary friend. By the Nineties, the figure was one in three. Now the figure is two in three, but it could just be that, with parent’s attitudes changing, children feel more comfortable telling people about them.

A 2004 University of Oregon study found that 65 per cent of children up to the age of seven had, or had previously had, an imaginary friend — a much higher figure than expected. They also found that having an imaginary friend is linked to emotional health. At London’s Institute of Education, researchers have found that these children tend to be more articulate, confident and creative, are less likely to be shy, and have more advanced social skills.

All these descriptions sum up Darrell. He could speak in clear sentences long before he was two and mixes well with children of all ages. Researchers have found that imaginary friends can help a child with stressful situations — like starting school or their parents divorcing — but to the best of our knowledge, this isn’t the reason for Darrell’s imaginary friends. Like many children with them, he has siblings to keep him company — Avril, ten, Hayden, seven, and Zander, two.

Research has debunked another myth — that children with imaginary friends are more often the eldest or only child. The evidence appears to be that he simply has a very active imagination rather than being a child with a problem. My other children react the same as we do to all of Darrell’s imaginary friends. They will sometimes ask about them, and have a bit of a giggle, but it never goes too far. They never try to convince him that they’re not real.

Having a child with an imaginary friend is like joining a private members’ club where you swap stories of these beings. My friend Rachel still recalls her own imaginary horse that she used to ride all the way to school. Her mum used to get terribly embarrassed as Rachel wouldn’t go into school until she’d tied it up at the school gates — where it would graze all day until she came out again.

Imaginary friends can take various forms and be any age. My friend Andy had an imaginary friend called Lizzie who lived in their bathroom towel box until he was about six or seven, handing out advice to him while he sat on the toilet. I have found it fascinating to be part of this imaginary world. To me, it is a sign of an imaginative and creative mind. We never discuss the fact that Darrell’s chums are imaginary, but it is an unspoken truth.

Laymar may or may not return, and who knows what crime he will get up to next. The others — William Wallace and the various dogs — are likely to disappear at some point over the next few years but, like Lizzie in the towel box, they won’t be forgotten. I expect that in 30 years’ time, when my children are reminiscing, we will all have stories to share about Darrell’s friends and their adventures.