When I was a little girl, we moved from our old house to our new house (where my family lived for nearly 40 years), and I missed my friend Jimmy so badly I would pretend he was with me. He was my imaginary friend at a time I was uncertain, didn’t know the neighborhood kids yet, etc. I think. I have very few memories of this time, because we moved when I was three-going-on-four. I knew Jimmy was imaginary, but he seemed real when we played together. Anyway, one time I was playing and imagining that Jimmy was chasing me, so I locked him in the bathroom. For real. My mother thankfully had one of the special tools that unlock those doorknobs that don’t have a key, and it all worked out. I remember talking about why I had done that with her, and she told me it was ok to have an imaginary friend. Shortly after, Jimmy left my mind and I forgot all about him for many, many years.
Flash forward to about five years ago and I am reading Alive in Wonderland, the blog of Suzanne Broughton, who I met through the OC Register. She was posting hilarious stories about her son’s imaginary friend, SoSo. Ben was four when SoSo came around, married LuLu, introduced Knock-Knock his brother and CoCo his dog. I read these stories with fondness, remembering how Jimmy had been so important to me when I was that age.
Well, about two months ago, Melody met a ‘ghost’ named Cheryl, or Carol if she’s been naughty, who followed her home. Melody’s friend Lily has a ghost that followed her home, as well. Cheryl has stayed around, playing with Melody’s toys, moving things around and otherwise pranking her from time to time and keeping her from sleeping. This morning, Melody explained how Carol had moved the missing piece from the Perfection game so that she (Melody) wouldn’t be able to take it to game day at school. But then, Melody remembered – not in a dream mind you – that the missing piece was on the TV cabinet because she’d been intending for me or her Dad to pay Easter Egg hunt with the pieces. She told me this upon waking this morning. Not remembering a dream.
I could hear Melody talking in her bedroom while dressing this morning, ostensibly having a conversation with Cheryl. In the car, she advised me that Cheryl has a
dog (who’s name has escaped me) cat named Teensie and that the dog cat plays with Browser while he is sleeping and that’s why Browser’s feet twitch. At that moment, Cheryl and her dog cat were in the cargo space of my SUV as we all drove over to school. Also, Cheryl and Teensie eat invisible carrots.
Sometimes, Melody will stop in the doorway of her playroom or bedroom, state very clearly “Cheryl, stop it!” and then head off to whatever it was she was going to do in the first place.
Apparently, imaginary friends and/or ghosts are fairly common in the kindergarten set.
Sometimes I worry that because Melody does not have a sibling, she is somehow lacking in stimulation or companionship at home. She often begs us to have friends visit, and when they do come over she begs them not to leave. Are these feelings of loneliness playing out as Cheryl? Research suggests that an imaginary friend for a child is a way to express fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and other feelings that children have difficulty expressing. Most children have encountered an imaginary friend by age 7. Most adults do not have an imaginary friend, because society isn’t ready for Harvey and it is most often seen as eccentric. Sometimes it is seen as mental illness, and that just makes adults uncomfortable. Adults who do have an imaginary friend tend to keep it a secret for fear of stigmatization.
Fortunately, other research suggests that imaginary friends help children in a positive fashion. Children who chat with their version of Cheryl tend to develop language and conversation skills at an earlier age, and high school students who reported having an imaginary friend during childhood had developed better coping skills and resiliency than their peers. So while Dr. Spock might scare a parent into thinking their child has a serious psychological problem because of the presence of an imaginary friend, the reality is that children will likely be just fine.
I turned out ok. I’m pretty sure Melody will too.