People are using tiny dolls called Sonny Angels for emotional support.
According to research, dolls may be therapeutic for managing loneliness, attachment issues, and grief.
While therapy dolls may be helpful for some patients, they should not be used as a replacement for real-world interactions or mental health support.
Earlier this year, a meetup group of over 100 adults sat in New York City’s Washington Square Park with hundreds of tiny dolls arranged on picnic blankets. The dolls come from a brand called Sonny Angel—super-small dolls complete with tiny penises and unique hats, all with different colors and shapes.
Sonny Angels were brought to market in 2005 but have seen a recent boom in popularity —with millions of TikTok videos showcasing them (just search #sonnyangels).
But why are adults so interested in these small dolls? Sonny Angels, BuzzFeed reports, aren’t just for trading and collecting (although people certainly do that). They’re also used as a tool for emotional support. The dolls are described by the company as providing “healing moments in your everyday life.”
The BuzzFeed piece said that Yunuen Cho, co-organizer of the Washington Square meetup, used to work at a high-powered law firm in midtown Manhattan—and when she felt “overwhelmed or sad,” she’d walk over to a window displaying Sonny Angels dolls. They perked her up, so she bought one and encouraged her colleagues to do the same.
How can tiny dolls help patients?
Regarding the dolls, there may be a few elements of emotional support at play.
Part of the dolls’ charm is that buyers aren’t entirely sure which doll they’ll get when they open the box. There’s a comforting nostalgia attached to the toy, which may be of benefit: According to the clinical journal Emotion, “Nostalgia, a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, is a predominantly positive and social emotion. Recent evidence suggests that nostalgia maintains psychological comfort.”
Nicole Artz, LMFT, agrees, saying that this sort of nostalgia could elicit a sense of comfort and safety: “The mystery effect is alluring, kind of like how previous generations hoped for a certain toy when opening a box of cereal or tucked in a kid's meal at a favorite fast-food place. With so much emphasis on nurturing the inner child these days, these items can help people reconnect with their younger selves, which can also be healing,” she says.
Artz also believes loneliness may play a role in Sonny Angels’ popularity. She says that although Gen Z—the group predominantly sharing #sonnyangels videos on TikTok—are digitally well-connected, they still experience high rates of loneliness and isolation.
“The dolls may provide a sense of relief or grounding,” Artz continues, “which can be calming during a heightened moment. In addition, they can provide a sense of community, especially when you use them as a way to meet up with people in real life.” In fact, research has found that Gen Z individuals experience the highest levels of loneliness, impacting not only mental and physical health.
The company describes these dolls as a “small boyfriend,” so the small penis aspect of the doll may elicit questions. However, Artz believes that this is benign and inherently childlike. “I don't think most girls/women are walking around with these dolls as if they're makeshift partners. If anything, I think the penis is just a way to model the dolls as little babies/toddlers,” she says.
Dolls, of course, have long had a place in therapy. Research shows that doll therapy can be therapeutic for a range of patients. In people with dementia, dolls were a positive intervention, leading to a reduced need for attachment, less anxiety and agitation, and improved communication and socializing.
Additionally, some dolls are provided to the patient by the clinician. “Many therapists use transitional objects in their practice,” Artz says, “which refer to tangible items intended to maintain a sense of safety between sessions. They can also be used when terminating therapy. I've used items like stones, books, plants, or candles, but some therapists may use small trinkets like dolls for these objects.”
These transitional objects also help patients experiencing grief. “We hypothesize that such objects appear and serve a role for parents in their adaptation to loss after a child’s death,” according to research published in Comprehensive Psychiatry.
For example, people have turned to lifelike baby dolls to manage grief after losing a child—although there is no clinical research on this specific practice.
Supporting patients who use a doll as therapy
The practice shouldn't be discouraged if your patient wants to carry an emotional doll. According to Alexandra Cromer, a licensed professional counselor, "These emotional support dolls serve as permanently uplifting and supportive coping skills and mechanisms that are reliable and non-judgmental. Think about why you'd cast judgment on an adult about this but perhaps not a child and explore social constructs that you can begin to unravel."
Artz agrees. “I think we should always be encouraging clients to explore various techniques/items that help them feel grounded.”
She adds that healthcare providers need to ensure the dolls don’t become clutch, which she says can happen “when they're frequently used as a substitute for real-world interaction. It may also be a crutch when there's this obsessive need to buy or own them all, even if you don't have the financial means or physical space to store them.”