I have an imaginary friend

"I can see what you can not see"

Used to be imaginary friends eyes critically. Child psychiatrist Schulte-Markwort explains why nowadays parents should also put a plate on the table for their invisible buddy ...

Text: Kristin Hüttmann
Image: Niki Boon

A felt cord dangles from the cloakroom in the kindergarten. This is the leash. Noah tied them there for his fox. While the four-year-old is playing, doing handicrafts and doing gymnastics, the fox sits in the cloakroom and waits. When Noah goes home, he puts on his shoes and jacket and picks up the felt rope. As he trudges home, he pulls her behind him. Apart from him, nobody can see the fox.

The animal was his first invisible companion. “He accompanied Noah everywhere,” says Katrin, his mother. The fox was also often present at meals - under the table, where Noah ate his afternoon snack. "Later there was such a human-like thing," remembers his mom. “That was little Nick. It could fly right up to the ceiling. " The most imposing of Noah's imaginary friends, however, was a golden fire dragon the size of a medium-sized airplane, which accompanied the family until the holidays.

Every third child has an imaginary friend

Noah is now eight years old and goes to school. The imaginary friends disappeared two years ago, at the end of kindergarten. He didn't need her anymore. "Imaginary companions help the children to feel less alone," says Michael Schulte-Markwort, head of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University Clinic Hamburg-Eppendorf. "They appear when a child has to go out into the world for the first time and separate from their mom."

Experts also speak of transitional objects - objects such as a safety blanket or cuddly toys that give the child a feeling of security and support. "All children need such transitional objects," explains Schulte-Markwort.

The invisible companions can appear in the most varied of manifestations.

While some make do with a stuffed animal, others invent fantasy companions. They can be human, or they can be animals and mythical creatures. Several boys and girls told the 60-year-old child psychiatrist Schulte-Markwort about their invisible companions.

"About every third child has a friendship that only exists in their imagination at times," says Inge Seiffge-Krenke from the University of Mainz. Until the 1970s, scientists feared that the imaginary companions were harbingers of mental disorders. Today we know that the phenomenon is not pathological. "These are completely normal, healthy children"says Seiffge-Krenke. "The invisible friends are a creative achievement that help the child in difficult situations and promote their development."

Lonely only children

Imaginary companions can appear when the parents separate - but also when a sibling is born. So it was with Noah, who was three years old when his little brother was born.

The American researcher Marjorie Taylor from the University of Oregon interviewed 152 children for a study and found that children who make friends usually have no siblings or are firstborn. Both apparently often feel lonely: only children because a playmate is missing and firstborns because the new sibling attracts the parents' attention.

Children between the ages of three and seven are particularly likely to have invisible friends. This point in time is due to the development of the children. "It's a kind of cognitive game," says the psychologist Seiffge-Krenke, "and thus a question of mental maturity." Children also learned a lot for themselves by interacting with these imaginary friends, says Seiffge-Krenke. That promotes social skills.

An armed alien as a protector?

When foxes and other comrades join the family, parents can stay calm. Nevertheless, parents should pay special attention to the invisible guest. An invisible companion reveals a lot about the child's state of mind. "I wish for mothers and fathers who don't dismiss this as crazy"says the child psychiatrist Schulte-Markwort. "You should be attentive and develop your own hypothesis as to why the companion might be necessary for the child right now." The more space the parents give the fantasy friend, the faster it loses its importance again.

However, if an imaginary companion remains by the side of a child for years, the parents should seek out the reason with the help of experts. Just like that eight-year-old boy Schulte-Markwort still remembers. "He had an alien," says the child psychiatrist. "This armed companion was only a threat to the others and protected the boy from the hostile world." Because the alien did not disappear at all, the parents and their son came to his office hour. “The boy found it a little difficult to deal with reality,” says Markwort-Schulte. Group therapy helped. "The more confident the boy became in contact with his peers, the less he needed the alien."

Most of the time, the imaginary friends disappear on their own.

The imaginary companions are seldom so persistent. Most invisible foxes and flying friends disappear on their own. By the way, Noah's younger brother has no invisible protectors. “Almost a bit of a shame,” says his mom. "Somehow these creatures were also delightful."

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