Recently we had a client whose toddler daughter would talk to someone they couldn’t see. Because they believed heavily in the paranormal, they thought it was the father’s dead mother. The name the child had given her friend was similar to the name they had called his mother. The daughter called her friend nanny and they called her nay-nay or something equivalent when she was alive. Why couldn’t have been an imaginary friend?
In order to determine which it really was, we would need to talk to the daughter and hear her conversations with nanny. Research suggests that the child knows that the imaginary friend is not real and conversations with an imaginary friend reveal a child’s fears, anxieties, and perceptions of the world around them. It has been suggested that imaginary friends bring companionship and comfort to a lonely or stressed child. It also allows them the feeling of power to tell someone else what to do for a change, as opposed to always being told what to do. Some children also like passing the blame for the broken items in the house on the imaginary child (especially if no sibling is present).
In researching my blog I came across many stories of children who had ghosts as friends instead of imaginary friends. I didn’t think it was as easy to tell the difference in people with little verbal skill and small vocabulary. However, in one story the mother said she knew the house was haunted as she had seen (and heard) the ghosts and the son even told her his friends were ghosts. Can young children tell the difference between what is not real (imaginary) and what is not alive (Ghost)? Perhaps it is up to the parents to decipher if what the child is saying is real or imaginary. The problem with the parents figuring it out is that they are biased in one way or another.
The parents could potentially want there to be something paranormal (as in the case with this client), they could otherwise not want the child or family stigmatized with a label like “weird” and therefore choose to interpret it as an imaginary friend, and still others may choose to ignore it. Sometimes the loss of a family member can be so grievous the family will grasp at straws, hoping that the imaginary friend is the lost family member despite all indication to the contrary.
Infants tend to look at things we can’t see. Some people say it’s because they can see angels or the dead because they are so close to the line between life and death (being just born). The non-believer explanation is that they stare into seemingly nothing because they are constantly developing their eyesight and are learning, so they need breaks and are fascinated by items we take for granted (lamps, fans, shadows, lights).