Most parents would have experienced the typical phases of their child talking to their imaginary friend(s) at their playtime tea-party, warrior and knight sword exchange and right till just before bedtime. It may not strike as something alarming because we all know imagination and the world of pretend play is part and parcel of a child’s growth and is considered vital in developing both cognitive and affective processes.
However, what happens when your child’s world of make-believe doesn’t seem to be fantasy and instead becomes his reality? What if your child tells you of voices he hears and visions he sees? Worse, he is affected by these hallucinations and everyday life gets crippled. And is it true that only children who have experienced loss, separation, abuse and trauma more susceptible to these imaginary experiences? Juansa speaks with Dr Seetha Subbiah, Psychologist and author of Did You Hear That? Help for Children Who Hear Voices to find out more about auditory and visual hallucinations in children.
- What are some common auditory and visual hallucinations? I have not seen two children with the same or identical auditory or visual hallucinations; each child’s experience is unique. While the forms and figures may be different, the underlying nature of the voices may share something in common. For example it is common for voices to be angry, threatening, persecutory or critical.
- How do parents differentiate between the harmless imaginary friend situation and the more worrying hallucinations? When the mental activity is intrusive and interferes with daily life. When the voices are not within the child’s control and they do not have charge of the voices.
- What are the most common causes of hallucinations? Traumatic experiences, grief and/or loss, unconscious projection of one’s uncomfortable feelings onto an external entity. It could also be due to genetic predisposition.
- Who are most at risk of such hallucinations? Are those with family history of Schizophrenia more vulnerable? People or young children having suffered a traumatic experience are at risk of visual and/or auditory hallucinations. And those with a family history may or may not be more vulnerable. It is circumstantial and largely dependent on the environment and presence of emotional stressors or triggers.
- Should parents acknowledge the hallucinations and agree with the child that they exist? Yes. The voices per se are not the problem. Many hear voices and never need help and live effective lives. It is the effect and impact voices have on people that makes voices a problem. In other words, their reaction to the voices is what is usually problematic.
- How then can the parent help get rid of the hallucinations or must professional counselling help be sought? Getting rid of the voices may not necessarily be the solution. Rather, helping the child deal with the voices would be more important. And in order to do that, one has to help the child understand why the voices are there (role), how they came about (cause). Only after these two are completely understood, can the child move on to deciding what they would like to do with their voices and how they can achieve their goals. Many of them can live effective lives with voices as long as they know how to manage them (voices) and are in charge of and in control of the voices.
This article is an extension of an article found in the print edition of Singapore’s Child July Issue 176 with the headline ‘My Child Hears Voices I Don’t Hear’.