It's common for children to report hearing voices, researchers say

June 14, 2017 by Sarah Parry And Filippo Varese, The Conversation
Credit: shutterstock

Although the way we view and support people with mental health difficulties has improved over the years, experiences such as hearing voices and seeing visions are often still associated with "severe and enduring mental illness". But what is less well-known about these voices and visions is that they are surprisingly common – especially when growing up.

Around 8 percent of young people are thought to hear voices at some stage in childhood, with up to 75 percent having a one-off experience of voice hearing. This makes hearing voices about as common for as having asthma or dyslexia. For many children, then, it seems that hearing voices is a pretty normal part of growing up.

Research shows, the experience of hearing voices that others can't hear – also called auditory verbal hallucinations in traditional psychiatric terms – is not usually upsetting for many children. The experience of hearing voices also doesn't tend to last too long – meaning it can often be something children grow out of or overcome in time.

Nevertheless, for some young people, the experience can carry on for many years and cause confusion and distress – not only for the young person but for the family as a whole.

Learning from young people

Compared to adult -hearers, relatively little research or analysis has been carried out with young people who hear voices. Consequently, we don't really know much about how young people make sense of these experiences or how they might look for help.

This is one of the main reasons why we have recently set up the Young Voices Study. Over recent months, we have been working with young people and their families to explore their views on what it's actually like to hear voices in childhood and how parents can support their children through the experiences.

As well as speaking with young people and their parents or guardians in the northwest of England, we have also developed two online surveys that can be accessed internationally – one for young people who hear voices and one for their parents or guardians.

Although we are at an early stage of the research, the stories we have heard so far have offered useful insights into the complexity of these experiences.

Young people and their parents have described a huge range of experiences. Some young people have explained how their voices can be supportive, but also intrusive and distressing. We have also heard about a range of factors that make the voices helpful, comforting or problematic, as well as young people's ideas about the support that would be helpful for others going through the same thing.

Behind the label

Research with teenagers who hear voices suggests that the ways young people make sense of their voices plays a crucial role in associated distress. So someone who considers hearing voices as a sign of "madness", or as an uncontrollable power that can force them to take actions against their will, is likely to experience considerable distress. As such, they may try to "control" the experiences through either self-injury or substance use – both of which are unhelpful in the long-term.

But if people can take a "curious" and "accepting" view of their voices, many young people find that their voices can become a useful source of support to help with other difficulties in life. As one of our participants said:

[The voices] help me with problems I'm having and have actually helped me in school as well .

Our early data also highlights the importance of families' reactions to the experience of hearing voices. This is because the reaction of parents is likely to influence how young people feel about their voices.

For instance, one young person who responded to our online survey explained how reactions from the adults around him not only upset and worried him, but also unsettled the voices. He said:

No one would believe me and it would frighten them [the voices].

And it is information such as this that can help us to understand the different layers of these experiences. These stories can also help us as researchers and clinicians to better comprehend the factors that can lead some children to become frightened or distressed when confronted with experiences that are not readily discussed or met with acceptance.

Voicing needs and difficulties

These personal stories from young people and their families also offer a unique opportunity to explore the extraordinary ways children cope with challenges.

Research has shown that hearing voices can begin for a range of reasons, including after an operation or an acute fever – or in response to emotional distress. Voice-hearing can also be triggered by traumas, such as bullying, loneliness, the loss of a loved one, abuse or neglect.

Our research builds on this and shows that while hearing voices can be a source of concern, it can also be a valuable coping strategy for some children. Indeed, one of our participants highlighted that his voices are "actually pretty cool".

We also hope that our research will help to increase awareness and reduce social stigma around these experiences. This will mean young people who hear voices can be better supported and also encouraged to talk about their experiences more freely and without fear or shame.

Explore further: Two simple questions that have changed the way people hear inner voices

Related Stories

Two simple questions that have changed the way people hear inner voices

May 3, 2017
Once the province of prophets, "hearing voices" is still shorthand for madness. And yet in the past 30 years, a new understanding has been created by voice-hearers themselves, as part of the Hearing Voices Movement. This ...

Psychics help psychiatrists understand the voices of psychosis

September 28, 2016
People with psychosis are tormented by internal voices. In an effort to explain why a Yale team enlisted help from an unusual source: psychics and others who hear voices but are not diagnosed with a mental illness.

Bilingual children are better at recognizing voices

June 12, 2017
Bilingual children are better than their monolingual peers at perceiving information about who is talking, including recognizing voices, according to a study by NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

Hallucinations and delusions more common than thought

May 27, 2015
Hallucinations and delusions in the general population are more common than previously thought.

Recommended for you

New study rebuts the claim that antidepressants do not work

August 18, 2017
A theory that has gained considerable attention in international media, including Newsweek and the CBS broadcast 60 minutes, suggests that antidepressant drugs such as the SSRIs do not exert any actual antidepressant effect. ...

Should I stay or should I leave? Untangling what goes on when a relationship is being questioned

August 17, 2017
Knowing whether to stay in or leave a romantic relationship is often an agonizing experience and that ambivalence can have negative consequences for health and well-being.

Kids learn moral lessons more effectively from stories with humans than human-like animals

August 17, 2017
A study by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto found that four to six-year-olds shared more after listening to books with human characters than books with anthropomorphic ...

History of stress increases miscarriage risk, says new review

August 17, 2017
A history of exposure to psychological stress can increase the risk of miscarriage by upto 42 per cent, according to a new review.

Study finds children pay close attention to potentially threatening information, avoid eye contact when anxious

August 17, 2017
We spend a lot of time looking at the eyes of others for social cues – it helps us understand a person's emotions, and make decisions about how to respond to them. We also know that adults avoid eye contact when anxious. ...

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

BobSage
not rated yet Jun 14, 2017
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind posits that in ancient times people literally did hear voices, which they interpreted as Gods speaking to them. The fact that children hear voices may lend credence to that interesting theory.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.