Lauren Henville is 23 and having lunch with a friend, even though she’s alone.
Her friend sits across from her and doesn’t say much. She never does. But they’ve been through a lot together. They have been traveling around Europe and are currently in Paris. Restaurants, cafes, sightseeing, and navigating new cities, have all been made easier for this young solo tourist because of the comfort her friend can offer. Lauren’s companion is a small smiling heart, with little legs. It’s a stuffed toy, maybe not your usual travel buddy, but one more young people are choosing.
Lauren has just returned from her trip, an exciting journey and one she feels a great sense of accomplishment for completing. She says she never actually felt alone. Her companion is known as ‘Little Heart Friend’, a stuffed toy from the brand Jelly Cat. They are a ruby red colour, and little more than a handful in size. Complete with two little eyes and a smile. Little Heart Friend may be small, but the comfort they bring Lauren is significant.
Little Heart Friend joins Lauren on her travels. Photos supplied: Lauren Henville.
Lauren has documented her travels on a TikTok account from the perspective of Little Heart Friend. She takes them out to snap a shot at the major tourist attractions, or shows them enjoying their dinner. She says she’s not sure what people think of her carrying this little toy around, but she says in the end she doesn’t care. Her mentality is: it doesn’t matter, I’m never going to see these people again.
“Judge me all you want it’s just a fun little thing, and it gives me genuine joy,” she says.
Lauren is not alone, in fact there is a burgeoning community of adults on TikTok who proudly have a ‘comfort toy’. The TikTok trend #innerchildhealing has over 1.8 billion views. It showcases adults re-discovering their love for the little things in life, the things that often meant so much to them as children, but fell away with the years. From toys to painting, or just re-watching a show they used to love, the trend promotes connecting to the simplicity of your younger self, to provide comfort and happiness in a complicated world.
Along with the trending hashtag, a lot of brands have become popular with the 20-year-old demographic on TikTok. Trending at the moment are Jelly Cats and Sonny Angels, with #jellycats having over 200.8 million views and #sonnyangel with 343 million views on the app. Hundreds of videos flood the app, young adults proudly displaying their favourite toys for all to see.
In a study conducted by OnePoll, commissioned by Micro-Games America Entertainment’s Miniverse, 59 per cent of people consider themselves ‘kidults’, adults who use consumerism to hold onto their childhood spirit.
The study asked 2000 Gen Z/millennials in America a series of questions about childhood toys and nostalgia. They found 67 per cent of adults would buy something which replicates an object from their childhood.
The study also showed two-thirds of adults now realise they can buy the things their parents wouldn’t let them have as kids.
Lauren Henville agrees, “my inner child can finally buy the things it wants, it’s my money!”
She says there is no point in refusing to buy something you enjoy just because it appears childish. If it makes you happy, then why not make the purchase? She believes it doesn’t make you any less of an adult to take joy in the little things.
Dr. Trevor Mazzucchelli is an Associate Professor of clinical psychology at Curtin University. He says ‘object and relation theory’ could play a part in why so many young adults gravitate towards a comfort toy or activity.
“As a child we have transitional objects we can rely on when we need comfort. It’s not uncommon for a child to fall asleep with a teddy bear,” he says.
As an adult, when we are faced with stress, we fall back on what we remember brings us comfort, Trevor says. He explains transition periods of life can often cause a lot of stress, so it is very possible young adults find relief from watching their favourite childhood show, or buying a soft toy.
He says childhood creates the foundations of how we deal with stress. The coping strategies we learn as a child, we continue to use as adults.
Lauren has always had a habit of collecting things and Little Heart Friend isn’t the first thing she has resurrected from her childhood. She has another doll friend to bring her comfort, her Cabbage Patch Kid. As a teenager, she went through the transition of moving to a boarding school away from her hometown.
During this transition, she brought her Cabbage Patch Kid with her to provide comfort. Throughout the years of high school, she didn’t need to rely on her doll and eventually it went to live back at her parents’ house.
However during another recent transition period of her life, Lauren felt like she needed the extra comfort from having the doll with her. Now she keeps it close by, and buys outfits and accessories for it. She says it is something she would have loved to have been able to do as a child.
Yunuen Cho is a 24 year old ‘Sonny Angel Influencer’ on TikTok. She has 27,600 followers on her account where she shows herself shopping, opening, and trading the small cherub figurines. They wear a hat in the shape of an object, such as a fruit or vegetable, and are purchased as a blind box which is part of a collectible series.
“I started collecting Sonny Angels when she was having a down day and walked past a bookstore selling them,” says Yunuen.
She’s been hooked on buying them ever since, even getting her friends and colleagues at her law firm involved. They all bought a Sonny Angel, and let them hang out on their desks all day as a good omen.
Sonny Angels are small enough to fit in a bag and join in on travels, which is exactly what Yunuen does. She says she finds a lot of comfort in knowing she has one with her and will bring it to restaurants or other outings.
“It’s a little figurine you can take everywhere and it’s the draw for me and I think the draw for a lot of other people as well,” she says.
Yunuen has also started doing trading sessions in NYC, where other collectors can come and trade their double-up figures. At the last event there was over 100 people.
She describes the community as very open and caring. It is mostly comprised of people in their 20s who are just enjoying the love for the toys, and sharing their lives together.
Ash King is a psychologist and social media expert. She says reconnecting with a sense of nostalgia from childhood can be quite soothing. It can offer an escape from all the responsibilities, demands and pressures of modern adult life.
She says the TikTok trend of ‘healing your inner child’ can be interpreted as a bit gimmicky.
“Buying a second-hand Polly Pocket and using it for a couple of hours, is not really the point,” she says.
She says from a psychology standpoint, inner child work is about going back and recognising the challenges you faced as a child; examining whether attachment styles were met, and feeling a sense of disconnection.
Ash says the trending hashtags point more towards escapism. She says escapism can often be viewed as a negative, as though people are running away from their problems. However, in reasonable doses, it can allow adults to grow and develop through connecting with their younger selves.
“As a parent to a toddler, reconnecting with how I was as a child helps to connect with my child and provides me with more empathy towards their view of the world,” she says.
Escaping through books, movies or TV allows people to experience life in someone else’s shoes, potentially creating a break from reality. King says the trend of healing the inner child is like re-experiencing and finding joy in aspects of the lives we have already lived.
“There is a big difference from an adult playing netball because it was a sport they played as a kid, to wearing nappies and pretending you are a child,” says King.
She says there is no fixed definition of what letting your inner child shine through means, but looking at it from a sense of playfulness is something more accepted by society. She says for the sake of creativity and mental health we need to understand play can be hugely beneficial.
“When we play, we just play for play’s sake and this can be incredibly beneficial. Being able to do it again, to re-embrace it as adults, I think is something I’m seeing happen more and more and it’s great,” she says.
When asked if they still had a stuffed toy, Curtin University students had mixed answers. Some proudly state that they do still find comfort in child-like things and others find the concept of taking a stuffed toy in public a little weird.
Lauren Henville says she used to hide her Cabbage Patch Kid when she had room inspections at boarding school and didn’t want to have it with her in university accommodation. Now as she has grown into adult life, she is more than happy to pull out her stuffed toy in a restaurant and enjoy the comfort it brings her without shame.
She recalls a time when she went shopping with a family member and she brought her Cabbage Patch with her, something she had done before throughout her childhood. She remembers arriving at the shops and as she was getting out of the car the family member told her to leave the doll behind.
Lauren vividly remembers being told, ‘We are not doing that this year.’
She describes this as a core memory and something that has stuck with her all these years. Lauren is now 23 years old but has always liked collecting dolls and stuffed toys. She says as she grew away from her childhood, she has always felt a bit of shame for continuing to like dolls and toys. She still enjoys dressing up her cabbage patch doll, buying clothes and accessories for her.
Lauren says she may not be explicitly ‘healing her inner child’ but she is letting her grow.
Healing your inner child doesn’t have to mean deep diving into your past or regressing to a childlike state. It can simply be enjoying colouring-in, or having a doll which sits on your desk to bring you comfort as you complete a busy workday.
“It’s not that I didn’t get to be a child, I definitely did, I just would have liked to be let to be a child for a little longer,” Lauren says.