It's Not Unusual If Your Child Hears Voices
If your child hears voices, your first reaction may be panic. The first time my son said he heard voices, I almost fainted. I work with adults who hear voices due to their mental illnesses, so my first thought was early-onset schizophrenia. My son does not have schizophrenia. Turns out, a child who hears voices isn't that unusual.
If Your Child Hears Voices, Don't Panic
What Is a Psychotic Disorder?
Psychotic symptoms include hallucinations (e.g. seeing or hearing something that isn't there) and delusions (false beliefs). Most people associate these symptoms with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. Severe major depression can also trigger psychosis, as can a manic or depressive episode of bipolar disorder. Certain drugs, the more obvious being hallucinogens, can cause these symptoms, and long-term use may lead to what looks like a psychotic disorder.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is not a psychotic disorder and does not cause a child to hear voices. My son's disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD) is not a psychotic disorder either. My son is 10 years old, which is typically too young to develop a mental illness like schizophrenia. It can happen that young, but most people develop psychotic disorders in their late teens or early 20s. If your young child says he hears voices, something else could be happening.
Psychosis as a Side Effect of Psychiatric Medication
If your child hears voices, consider that psychiatric medications can cause psychosis as a side effect. It's rare, but it did happen to my son when he started an ADHD stimulant medication at age six. Within days, he reported hearing voices swearing at him. Another time, over lunch, he gave me a chilling glare and said I was an imposter mom who was trying to poison him. A friend of mine told me how her son, on the same medication, started seeing ghosts and took to saging his house.
If you notice a drastic change in your child's behavior, always seek professional advice. We called our doctor, and she said he may be experiencing side effects. We immediately took him off the medication. My son takes a different stimulant now without the frightening side effect.
Your Child May Not 'Hear Voices' at All
The incident I described above wasn't the first time my child heard voices. That happened when he was four. He'd had a rough day at daycare, which was becoming more frequent due to his as-yet-undiagnosed ADHD. He'd thrown a chair. He said, "I didn't want to, but the voice told me to."
Once the panic subsided, I asked more questions. What did the voice sound like? How often did this happen? It soon became clear that my son wasn't hallucinating. He was describing a lack of impulse control. He said he'd known he shouldn't throw the chair, but he couldn't ignore that voice we all have in our heads that tells us to do things we shouldn't. You know that voice, the one that insists you eat that piece of cake even though you're stuffed and will regret it later?
My son's "voice" was just a four-year-old's vocabulary for "lack of impulse control".
Children Hearing Voices Isn't Uncommon
It's also possible that your child simply hears voices.
He wouldn't be alone. I read a research study that explored whether children with ADHD are more likely than their peers to develop psychotic disorders like schizophrenia (see bibliography). Thankfully, the answer is no. According to that study, though, research shows that as many as 12% of all adolescents experience hallucinations and/or delusions at some point and do not have a mental illness. It is not rare.
Neither is hearing voices uncommon for adults. Some of the more brilliant minds in history openly talked about hearing voices. If interested, a good book about this is Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Hearing Voices and the Borders of Sanity by Daniel B. Smith (Mental Illness and the Stigma of the Spiritual Experience).
The moral of the story, really, is to always ask questions. More than likely, your child who hears voices does not have a psychotic disorder. Even if he does, that's okay. You asked the questions, and together, you'll find the help he needs.
Vitiello, B., Perez Algorta, G., Arnold, L., Howard, A., Stehli, A., and Molina, B. (2017). Psychotic Symptoms in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: An Analysis of the MTA Database. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 56(4), 336-343.
David, M. (2017, October 9). It's Not Unusual If Your Child Hears Voices, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, August 5 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/parentingchildwithmentalillness/2017/10/its-not-unusual-for-children-to-hear-voices
Author: Melissa David
Although this article addresses reasons a child might hallucinate, it doesn't address those parents who actually do have a very young child with schizophrenia. My child hears voices...but also sees, feels, smells, and tastes things that aren't there. Additionally, he has some bizarre beliefs and paranoid delusions. So, although it is rare, there are true instances where a parent has every reason to be concerned and despite we read everywhere that this is a rare condition, there are some parents out there that are dealing with this rare condition.