[Every week, Shine finds an answer to one of life's little mysteries. If you've got a burning question you want answered, tweet it to @yahooshine #burningquestions or share it in the comments section.]
Well, if you ask Cindy, my best friend growing up, her mother started the imaginary relationship with "Johnny" to assuage the guilt over Cindy's lack of siblings. Johnny helped fill some of the lonely hours Cindy, as an only child, faced. And I can attest to this isolation being an only myself. But thinking back on Johnny, Cindy says that she just felt "like a dork!" Was Cindy's mom helping relieve Cindy's loneliness and maybe sparking her imagination by dreaming up Johnny, or was she making the only child syndrome worse by preventing Cindy from making real friends?
The Classic Reason
As an 8-year-old knocking on Cindy's door, I often felt like a third wheel when her mom told me Cindy was inside playing with Johnny. If you are a Dr. Spock fan, you believe as Cindy and I do -- that children who are not with other children much use imaginary friends as a way to fill a void and that these lonely kids need to go out and make some real friends. From "Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care, 9th Edition": "When you help such a child to make friends with real children, the need for fantasy playmates lessens."
If you fancy newer research, you discount what Dr. Spock believes and subscribe to the camp that imaginary friends are not the sole domain of the only or lonely child. You believe all children, who are imaginative, create these beings and that the imaginary friend crops up during a life change, when children are learning a new skill or when they just want some fun. Psychology professor Jerome Singer and research scientist Dorothy Singer in their book, "The House of Make-Believe," share this view.
Carleton Kendrick, family therapist and author of "Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We're Going to Grandma's," gave me this reason: "Beyond the obvious desire for companionship, kids may consciously and unconsciously use imaginary friends to deal with their emotions and to work through issues they are confronting." He also said, "All research in this area points to kids benefiting in their intellectual, social, emotional, and creative development as a result of their having had imaginary friends."
So what should you do about your kid's imaginary playmate? If your child is between the ages of 2 and 6, let her have the imaginary friend, but don't ignore or draw attention to the invisible pal, says pediatric psychologist David Erickson. If the imaginary friend is overstaying his welcome, persists into elementary school and prevents real friendships from developing, it might be time to visit a counselor or psychologist.