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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 15-Dec-16 11:41:07

How to handle an invisible friend?

Is there a right way to handle an imaginary friend? Do you acknowledge them, invite them to tea and treat them like part of the furniture? Or wait until the phase has passed? Author Pip Jones has the answer, courtesy of her experience with an invisible cat...

Pip Jones

How to handle an invisible friend?

Posted on: Thu 15-Dec-16 11:41:07

(40 comments )

Lead photo

Does your grandchild have an imaginary friend?

It can feel like a steep learning curve, becoming a mum. One minute, you know precisely how to 'do life', the next you're in a state of 24/7 perplexity, trying to figure out precisely how this tiny little being you've created, you know, 'works'.

Of course, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of books and websites now to help first-time mums – between them all, they must offer every possible solution to every possible problem, so mums are bound to hit on the right answer sooner or later. One thing I never found any help with in my pile of baby/toddler books, though, was how to solve a problem like Cat.

You see, Cat wasn't your average cat. He was my little girl's invisible kitten, a friend she imagined one day, quite out of the blue, when we were reading a pre-nap story.

Ava was only two and a half at the time. All toddlers, in this burgeoning stage, are prone to crazy leaps of imagination on a minute-to-minute basis – she described what Cat looked like in minute detail. But what I wasn't expecting was for Cat to stay as long as he did. After Ava's nap, he was still there. At the end of the day, he was still there. After a week… yep, he was still there. Cat lived with us for months…though at the time it felt longer.

Ava is now eight years old and Cat left us a long time ago, but I have talked a lot about him in the last few years. Two questions I've often been asked are: 1) What was it like, having an imaginary friend in the house? And 2) Was it weird, how did you cope?

The honest answers are:

Mostly it was funny. It was certainly enchanting, watching a girl so in tune with her own imagination that she'd managed to create a kitten 'real' enough to actually act independently of her. So yes, I'd say it was 90% funny and enchanting. It was also 10% infuriating/maddening. No rushing mother wants to have to unstrap her only-just- strapped-in toddler from the car seat, so she can go back into the house to retrieve a forgotten invisible pet. And no mum wants to haul herself out of a relaxing bubble bath three minutes after she got in, because the invisible Cat had decided to get out of the bath, and was now shivering on the floor and needed a towel 'QUICKLY!'

Even when we're required to step into an imaginary realm, it seems that mums, dads, grandparents and extended family do seem to just get on with it.


2) Yes, it definitely was weird, in many ways. I didn't think twice about holding or talking to Cat when out in public with Ava. I expect I got some 'looks'. But that was the thing – when it came to 'coping', it was really more just a case of adapting. There was no arguing with Ava, you see. My instinct as a mum told me to go with the flow. Me telling my daughter that Cat WAS in the car with us would not, for one second, have convinced her when, in her mind, he was in the house, upstairs, on her bed. The fact that Ava sometimes tried to encourage Cat to do her bidding(extra rice cakes, additional bed time stories and so on), well, I wised up to that pretty quickly.

I never really spoke to my friends at the time, about Cat and his antics. I realise now I should have.

A quickly drafted question on my own Facebook page, about whether any friends' children had imaginary pals, returned approximately 25 'yeses' in the space of an hour or so. I was gobsmacked! All these invisible friends! All these mums, dads and grandparents run ragged not only by their own kids, but by invisible children, dogs, aliens…!

One thing that struck me: what all my parent-friends had in common was that they didn't find the imaginary friends worrying. Just like me, instinct had told them to stay cool, be patient, engage, and learn from the experience. According to the experts, that's precisely the right thing to do.

I asked a clinical psychologist, Dr Genevieve von Lob, about the right way to approach an imaginary friend who's moved in. "It's up to you how much attention you give to imaginary friends," she said. "But the best thing to do is to acknowledge and include them as a legitimate presence in the household.

"Be curious about this invisible visitor — and try not to dismiss them as non-existent, or figments of a child's imagination. You might even ask to speak to the imaginary friend, which may help you gain a greater insight into how your child feels, or reveal their perspective on certain issues."

Like many other (sometimes testing) aspects of parenting, even when we're required to step into an imaginary realm, it seems that mums, dads, grandparents and extended family do seem to just get on with it.

As Dr von Lob said: "Imaginary friends can, understandably, pose challenges – but they are a true expression of the magic of childhood."

There's no arguing with that.

Pip's book, Squishy McFluff: The Invisible Cat, is published by Faber and Faber and is available from Amazon.

By Pip Jones

Twitter: @FaberBooks

Teetime Thu 15-Dec-16 11:45:49

My Sister and Whackitt spent many happy years together - we never knew what Wackitt looked like but he came to all meals, had his own chair and place setting and had to be consulted on all matters from when she was about 4 until she was 8 when she simply said he had gone away.
My Nephew and Pleaky all so spent many happy years together and we were never informed of what form he took.

Mumsy Thu 15-Dec-16 12:30:30

my older daughter had an invisible dog on a piece of string she used to drag around with her all the time. No I wasnt worried I found it quite endearing.

thatbags Thu 15-Dec-16 12:36:30

DD2 had a cow as an imaginary friend. If I told DD to come along a bit faster on the way home from playgroup, she'd say: "Daisy's the slow one; she's eating grass".

Daisy was very helpful when I mowed the lawn. She got DD to carry armfuls of raked up grass to the compost heap, otherwise known as Daisy's lunch heap.

Friend's little boy had an imaginary dinosaur. Friend told boy to hurry up getting on the bus once. Little boy replied: "Dino's not all on yet". I hope it made the bus driver's day!

annodomini Thu 15-Dec-16 12:37:15

I had an imaginary friend called Gretchen who lived in my granny's big old black kitchen range. I couldn't take her home with me so I had to visit her there. I don't think she lasted very long - she certainly wasn't around when I started school. I wonder what she's doing now! tchgrin

rosesarered Thu 15-Dec-16 14:12:06

I never had an invisible friend, neither did any of our DC and so far not the DGC either.
So, I wonder what makes children create them?I had a sibling, as did our DC and some of the DGC
, but one DGS is an only child, and has never done the invisible friend thing, even though he is very anxious about a lot of things.

rosesarered Thu 15-Dec-16 14:13:34

Forgot to say, I think it's fine to go along with it, may do more harm than good to deny their existence.

AlieOxon Thu 15-Dec-16 14:39:19

When I was evacuated to my grandparents at age 3, I apparently had invisible friends....but they were all called Alison!

..........Don't know if this reflects my being an only child at the time??

nightowl Thu 15-Dec-16 14:49:08

DS1 had an imaginary friend named Nick who lived with us for a while. One day he was joined by another little boy named Meeston (at least I think that's how it was spelt - difficult to check with a 3 year old). They were ever present - at mealtimes, bath time, bedtime and the rest. Then one day we were all packed into our very small car ready to set off on holiday; DH, DS1, baby in car seat, luggage up to the roof. I asked whether Nick and Meeston had enough room back there and was met with a very anxious response - 'yes, but Jam Tart's getting squashed'. It appears the other two had decided to bring yet another friend along. DH and I wondered where it would all end, and whether we would have to buy a minibus. They stayed for a long time but gradually left us. I was quite sad; they had begun to feel like part of the family.

Jalima Thu 15-Dec-16 16:26:24

I had an invisible friend for a while, as far as I remember my mother was ill and I was sent to stay with a childless aunt.
I was allowed to wander all around the town on my own, age 7, but I had my elephant with me on a lead; he was only about the size of a very large dog but I suppose he must have been a comfort at the time.

Jalima Thu 15-Dec-16 16:31:50

Coincidentally, I am reading a book about a little boy who has an invisible friend, the Gypsy Madonna, but I think the invisible friend may have just disappeared along with the little boy's anxieties.

SueDonim Thu 15-Dec-16 17:14:34

Just the one imaginary friend? One of my children had several! They required (imaginary) places at the table and had to have doors of shops held open for them all to troop though, while I stood there getting some strange looks from passers-by. grin

wot Thu 15-Dec-16 17:39:34

How do you know they were not spirit children??.

Antonia Thu 15-Dec-16 17:46:52

Read "Chocky" by John Wyndham.

Squaredancer Thu 15-Dec-16 17:49:41

I totally blame myself for my son's imaginary friends. It was years ago when the song "Right said Fred" was popular. Son was between 2-3 and on lifting him out of the bath I jokingly said, Right then Fred, and low and behold Fred + Bobby were born!! From then on it was Fred says this or Bobby did that. I think it finished when he had a baby sister a couple of years later. We just used to go along with it, cute while it lasted.

Liaise Thu 15-Dec-16 20:01:05

My DGD (now aged 17) had an invisible friend when much younger. I recently asked her what became of 'Kelly' and she airily said that she had died a few years ago and then went back to putting her mascara on.

I don't think there is any harm in these fantasies.

Barmyoldbat Fri 16-Dec-16 01:30:53

My daughter had a friend, he had his chair at the table and a place setting was laid for him, he came everywhere with us, to the shops, out for a walk and even on holiday. Then one day he just went, gone were the words used and my daughter took to wearing a red bobble cap all the time and riding an invisible horse when went out. I have family photos of her in her bathing suit, making sand castles and wearing this blasted hat. Lasted just over a year.

rubylady Fri 16-Dec-16 06:43:32

My ED had an invisible duck! It used to follow us in the car when we were going on holiday. She used to tell her dad to slow down so he could catch up with us. We just let it play out and by the time she was 18, he had flown onto someone else! tchgrin

f77ms Fri 16-Dec-16 06:57:50

Eldest son had an invisible friend called Mammy , she was an old lady with cobwebs ! I never included Mammy or asked about her . When he started school he said she had been to the school gates to say goodbye , she was moving on and he never mentioned her again . I think he was a bit lonely and found it hard to make friends , none of my other children had these kind of `friends` thank goodness .

Gagagran Fri 16-Dec-16 08:00:45

I had an invisible friend called David when I was about 4 and he had to sit next to me at table. My Mum made me a rag doll and told me it was David and that was the end of the imaginary friend.

My DS had an invisible sheepdog called Muss who was a constant companion and slept on his bed every night. He just gradually faded away as DS got older.

DD had an imaginary husband called Bill who was a sailor and not often home from the sea but was quoted a lot! Especially if she didn't want to do something - "Bill says......."

I've always thought that it was a normal part of children growing up and making sense of their world and certainly not a cause for concern.

kittylester Fri 16-Dec-16 08:27:04

DD1 had an imaginary friend called Mincey Pie who appeared, not at this time of year, but the summer she started playschool. I assumed she needed a 'friend'' to keep her company in a new situation.

Swanny Fri 16-Dec-16 09:50:55

I had an imaginary friend called Margaret Light ('Light' because you couldn't see her!). I was an only child till I was 5 and we used to play together a lot. I remember causing a disturbance on a bus because someone sat on Margaret grin My mother was very embarrassed.

Do you remember the film 'Bogus' with Whoopi Goldberg looking after a little boy and Gerard Depardieu as his imaginary friend?

I can't remember exactly when Margaret left but I found out in later years that when my sister was born she was given the name to make my friend real ...

Yorkshiregel Sat 17-Dec-16 14:26:13

My youngest son had an imaginary friend called 'little Johnny'. One day I could hear him in the bedroom talking away to someone so I crept up the stairs. He was sat playing on the floor with his cars. Now and again he would ask or answer questions from 'little Johnny' and if I didn't know better I would have sworn he was sitting there. He tailed off as my son got older. I think it is an active imagination and a bit of loneliness thrown in that makes children create these little friends who seem real to them.....or maybe they really can see what we can't!

Daddima Sat 17-Dec-16 19:46:12

My middle child had 3 wolves ( John Eater, John Biter, and Robber Eater). We became used to having them as travelling companions.
A child psychologist colleague told me it was his way of dealing with a fear of wolves.

etheltbags1 Sat 17-Dec-16 22:59:27

I had an imaginary friend called Lulu, she lasted for a few months and I had a few imaginary pets, a lamb, a poodle and several horses. It was just fun and something of my own where toys were given by adults and supervised my imaginary people were mine only, my own little world. I'm like that now but instead of imaginary friends I read books to escape.

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