A few weeks ago, I went to the playground with my daughter Lieke, while the oldest was at school. She immediately ran towards the firefighter slide, as usual. “Mummy, come look! There’s a cat in the tree!” I hear her call and I walk over to look at it. Lieke always loses herself completely in her acting and thus takes her role as a true firefighter very seriously. I take the cat (which is not really there of course) from her and she slides back down, as hard as before. I give her the cat and sit down on a bench to watch her from a distance for a while. I love those fantasy games of hers and the way she plays! After playing in the sandbox with some other children for a bit, I see her head towards the swings. I expect she will now call me to push her but instead I see her make a move like she is lifting someone onto them, and she starts pushing the swing, all the while chatting. I can’t hear exactly what she is saying but it looks like she is having fun. ‘’Mummy, can you push me and my invisible friend?’’ I hear her call.
An invisible friend, that is something I had not heard from her before, how did she think of that? Because of my work I know that this happens more often, of course, so I stand up and walk to the swings to first push Lieke and then her invisible friend. “So, what is your friend called?” I ask her. “She is called Lieke-Sterre, mummy” she answers without a doubt. Her best friend is called Sterre, so I think it’s not even farfetched and I happily play along.
I think it’s not even farfetched and I happily play along.
However, it did not end with the act at the playground. From this day forward, the invisible friend truly joins us everywhere. Sometimes she sits with us at the table, they go to bed together, she comes with us to the beach, to the childcare centre, on visits and I understand the fun in that. Or, actually, not always…
When I think both children are secure in their seatbelts and I want to drive to school in the morning, my daughter starts panicking: ‘’No, mummy, don’t drive!! My invisible friend needs her seatbelt!’’ Okay, we are in a hurry, what do I do now… Should I say that it’s not going to hurt the invisible friend if she’s got no seatbelt on, or should I just put a seatbelt on the friend and play along to calm my daughter’s nerves, which are clearly not an act?
I decide on a compromise and tell her that her invisible friend can sit on her lap for once, under her seatbelt, and that she should hold on tight to her.
Thankfully, this solution is good enough and we reach school in time.
A few days later I hear the children fighting upstairs, while they are supposed to be in bed already. I walk towards it to see what’s going on and a sobbing Lieke meets me to tell me that her brother Quinten said her friend is not real and that he kicked her friend. I comfort Lieke and explain to her that it is quite difficult to understand sometimes for others who cannot see the friend. Then, I go to Quinten to explain to him that the invisible friend is indeed not real but that his little sister believes in it and that it wasn’t very nice of him to kick her.
We agree that we will get a book about an invisible friend the next day, so he can understand the way such a friend works and Lieke can understand that others cannot see her friend.
The next day, we find a good book and Quinten proudly reads it to his little sister, before bed. Ever since, they understand each other a bit better.
Why do many children have an imaginary friend?
Many children around the age of 3 years have an imaginary friend; toddlers experience the world differently than adults. A child has trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality, we call this magical thinking. A fantasy friend is part of the magical world of the toddler and thus completely normal. The child is practicing its fantasy and imagination. And this usually disappears on its own.
From the age of 6 years, children start to learn how to distinguish fantasy from reality, and so the friend will disappear on its own. Every child develops in its own way, so it may take some a little longer than others. Read more here why having an invisible friend can contribute to the healthy development of a child in a natural way.