Monday, 15 March 2010

Imaginary Childhood Friends

(Image credit Ryden)

Many children claim to have imaginary or invisible friends and will happily play and interact with these unseen friends throughout childhood.

A study was undertaken several years ago by the University of Manchester. They found a staggering 60 - 70% of children studied, at some point during their childhood, acquired an imaginary friend. They concluded that this ’phase’ should not be cause for alarm amongst worried parents. On the contrary, the study revealed that imaginary friends were often an asset in developing a more creative, confident, articulate and socially more adept future adult.

Several years ago a friend of mine experienced a bout of imaginary friend phenomena with her 4 year old daughter. Occasional she would mention "the little girl that tucks me in at night." My friend thought nothing of this to begin with, until one time her daughter woke her in the middle of the night complaining rather sleepily, that the little girl that tuckers her in bed at night, wouldn’t let her go to sleep. An overactive imagination, possibly and most likely but would that account for keeping a child from sleep, when all she wants to do is just that?

My friend next door. (names have been changed but events are a true)

I can remember when I was about 10 years old, my parents and I lived in a village close to Swindon. We had not moved in long before I met Ian - the boy next door. I immediately liked Ian and we would often happily play together for hours. There was however, one strange little quirk about Ian, he had an invisible friend who he called Tom; he did call him Tom. He didn’t actually come right out and say “I have an invisible friend called Tom," he just sort of introduced me quite matter-of-factly to Tom one day after I had mentioned who it was that he kept talking to; this was not the first time that Tom had joined in our games.

Often when we played together, Tom would join in. Ian would suddenly be distracted from play, look into the distance and with a beaming smile announce Tom’s arrival, whereupon he would engage in conversation (albeit one way) as if a real person had joined us at play. I must confess this threesome took a little getting used to but I never once questioned Ian about Tom’s existence, I just kind of accepted it. Although I never saw Tom, I would happily play and talk with him via Ian.

Sometimes I would be invited next door to Ian’s house for tea and would notice that Ian’s mother would always set another place for Tom. She would do this without a second thought, almost as if she too were aware of Tom’s presence. When I think back, I suppose she must have thought it a phase Ian was going through and like all childhood fantasies he would grow out of it sooner or later. Some may argue that acknowledging a Child's fantasy could be fuelling an unhealthy imagination and should be discouraged at every opportunity.

Occasionally I would ask of Ian as to the whereabouts of Tom, as sometimes he would not mention him. The response, more often than not, was a dismissive shrug of the shoulders and a single word response - “dunno!” Had they fallen out I would wondered, can you fall out with an invisible person? I never did find out on the occasions that Tom went walkabout, as Ian could not be coerced into offering any further explanation for Tom’s absence. Is was almost as if he were forbidden from divulging the reasons for Tom’s apparent absenteeism. This was a darker side to their relationship and when I think back now, just a little disconcerting and chilling. Sometime arguments would breakout between them, by arguments I mean a one way heated exchange with thin air. Sometimes things got so bad that Ian would just up and leave marching off indoors, while I sat there open mouthed and feeling just a little freaked out.

We eventually moved away when I was about 12 years old but I recall that Ian, who was the same age as me, still had Tom as a companion. We didn’t speak much during that final year or so before we moved, not because we had fallen out or because I had tired of invisible friends, it was just that we kind of drifted apart. Kids tend to have circles of friends, which change with the weather and I was no exception. I had new interests which brought new friends and I suppose on reflection Ian did not share my interests, although he never said as much. It was never my intention to ostracized Ian but he saw fit not to join in. I saw him occasionally in the playground at school, more often than not on his own but now and then with one other boy who I did not know.

I have not met Ian since moving away but would love to catch up with sometime and get his take on Tom today.

Do children see dead people?
There are some who believe that children have strong psychic abilities and are able to see the dead. This would go some way in explaining the imaginary friend phenomena. It is thought that most children lose their psychic ability as they mature into adulthood and adopt a more logical outlook on the world. A door closes on our childhood and shuts out a time when our imagination was limitless. In adulthood those images are closed to many of us, preoccupied as we are, with the tasks of day-to-day living in the organized chaos of the 21st century; I suppose we become desensitised to our childhood fantasies. I wonder if those lucky people (or unlucky if you prefer) who say they are still in tune with the spirit world, call them psychics, sensitives or mediums. I wonder if their particular 'door' is somehow still slightly ajar. Many of these people claim their first encounter with the spirit world was as a child.

And finally- The death of a child is heartbreaking to those it leaves behind but consider for a moment a child's spirit, its soul, its life-force if you will, if indeed such a thing exists. A young life barely at the threshold of life's journey of discovery and wonder suddenly snuffed out. A young life that had been, up to the moment of its death, vibrant and strong. Could that 'life-force' be strong enough to punch a hole back into the domain of the living. If this be true, then maybe that child's earthbound spirit, soul, life-force, whatever you want to call it, does what any child would do if suddenly found alone and frightened, and that is to seek out companionship and go in search of a little friend.

Whatever you believe invisible or imaginary friends to be, there is one thing for sure, those children that claim to have had one or have one, truly believe and who would be brave enough to refute their claims.

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