Many parents worry when their child, usually between the ages of three and five, creates an imaginary friend. “Why does he need one? Can’t he tell the difference between a real person and a pretend one?” And while they’re sometimes amused by their child’s concerns (“Watch out! You’ll sit on Herman!”), they’re more often frustrated.
Yet an imaginary friend is an important and creative part of growing up for many children. The friend helps a child deal with emotions and problems that he might otherwise not be able to handle. For example, a child might invent a companion as a way of relieving loneliness when he moves to a new home, leaving his real friends behind. Or the imaginary friend might help him deal with a new baby in the family, the start of day care or nursery school, or tension at home. Sometimes a child creates an imaginary animal, such as a dog, to help overcome a fear of real dogs or because he wishes to have a dog.
If a child feels overly controlled or unaccepted by his parents, he may invent a companion who’s very accepting and who always likes him. He may even become a demanding “parent” to his friend, whom he imagines to be a powerless child. “Herman, that was very bad. You shouldn’t have done that.”
Sometimes a child will use an imaginary friend to relieve himself of guilt. Since a child who’s done something wrong often fears discipline, he may deny his misbehavior (“I didn’t do it”) even when he’s been caught. If a child fears rejection, he may blame his imaginary friend for his own misdeeds. That way he will not have to deal with criticism or responsibility. “Herman took the papers off your desk,” or “Herman made me do it.”