Fly away with me!I don't remember when my now-3 year old began to create an imaginary friend entourage, but I do remember hearing names like LeiLu and LeeLee and snatches of stories about baking or slaying dragons together. And then there was Hammersteen, who was described as being a tall square with blonde hair. His friends were triangles, and he liked to call meetings on the back deck of our house. These were fleeting characters in the ongoing narrative of my tot's imagination.
But recently my daughter has invoked a friend named Betsy. Betsy likes to dress up like a princess. And Betsy likes to go to the beach. When I give my daughter a glass of milk she asks for a glass for Betsy as well, though they like to eat off the same plate. When we go anywhere in the car, my daughter makes a motion as though she's clicking a seatbelt into place and tells me that Betsy's ready to go too. And when my daughter does not heed my call to stop running on a green patch in a parking lot, it turns out that Betsy was the instigator. Betsy is everywhere.
Nearly Two-thirds of Children Have an Invisible Chum
My Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast co-host and I researched imaginary friends not too long ago, so I'm not entirely surprised that my daughter found an imaginary pal she could commit to. To me it's just a testament to how incredibly fertile a kid's storytelling brain is, like the 7-year-old kid whose invisible friend, Skateboard Guy, lived in the 7 year old's pocket and popped out to perform cool tricks when the kid became bored.
But more than anything, making up a friend is a sign that your kid is working out the nuances of her world. Psychologist Marjorie Taylor found that by age 11 nearly 65 percent of children have an imaginary friend, and some have as many as 13 at one time. For some it's an instant play date, for others it could be a way of coping with a life change (like a new addition to the family). And some kids use their phantom friends to work out relationships with other kids, like when their invisible pal "hits" them.
Whatever the reason, Taylor says that in a 10-year follow up to the study she conducted she found that kids who have pretend playmates tend to have better verbal skills and social understanding. She even goes as far to say that imaginary friends never quite go away, but rather they morph into something else. (This makes me wonder if the characters we watch on TV, and sometimes become so invested in, are phantom buddy for adults.)
Why We All Need an Imaginary Friend
Which reminds me of something called the Third Man Factor, a kind of hallucination in an otherwise healthy person who believes that they are speaking with a real person - when they are not. The "third man" is a reference to British explorer, Frank Smyth, who in 1933 was nearly the first person to scale Mount Everest. While scaling the mountain Smyth's climbing partner had fallen back due to low oxygen and driving wind, snow and ice. Smyth was alone.
But Smyth had a strong sensation that he was accompanied by a third man, so much so that when he stopped to break off a piece of cake and share it with his companion, he was startled to find that the man wasn't there. Said Smyth of his experience: "It even seemed that I was tied to my 'companion' by a rope, and if I slipped 'he' would hold me. I remember constantly glancing back over my shoulder."
There are other "third man" accounts, and all of them share the same circumstance in which the person who believes to be joined by a helpful friend is in a harrowing situation. Scientists aren't sure if it's a biochemical reaction to life-or-death stress or the brain misfiring.
In any case, it made me think of children and their ability to summon up a powerful character who helps them along the way. And then it made me think that creating imaginary friends for adults wouldn't be such a bad idea. Though it might draw a few stares.
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