Young people and hearing voices
Like voice-hearing in adults, hearing voices as a child or young person is a unique experience, and different for each individual.
Some children and young people hear voices that are comforting, kind and encouraging; for others, the voices are intimidating, critical and abusive. Some hear single words or phrases on an occasional basis, while others hear multiple voices that joke, interrupt conversations, or argue with them almost constantly. Young people who hear voices may also hear other sounds, such as rustling, banging, crying, screaming or music. Like adult voice-hearers, it’s also quite common for their experiences to involve more than one of the senses, and include visions, bodily sensations, smells and tastes.
The effects that voices have on children and adolescents also varies from person to person. On the negative side, some young people who hear intrusive voices can find it hard to concentrate, may withdraw into themselves to cope, and feel frightened and confused about what is happening to them. If the voices are critical or belittling, this can cause feelings of worthlessness and decrease confidence and self-esteem. Difficulties in coping with the voices, combined with worries about how others will react if they speak out about their experiences, can also lead many young people to feel very isolated and alone.
On the positive side, recent research has found that some children and young people are very accepting of their voices and even enjoy having them. Many experience voices that are friendly or reassuring and are more intrigued or curious about their experiences than frightened or afraid. For some, voices give good advice in difficult situations or provide a source of companionship that stops them feeling lonely. In fact, many young children who hear voices don’t realise that their experiences are unusual and not shared by others until their teens. It is only then that they become anxious about speaking up for fear of what others might think of them.
Did you know?
In a recent study of young voice-hearers by researchers from Manchester in the UK, less than 50% of the participants heard only negative or frightening voices. The majority of those who took part reported only positive voices or mixed experiences.
How common is it?
It’s difficult to put a precise figure on exactly how many children and young people hear voices.
A recent review and meta-analysis conducted by researchers in the Netherlands found that on average, 12.7% of children (aged 5 to 12 years) and 12.4% of adolescents (aged 13 to 17 years) report experiences of hearing voices. The same researchers found lower rates of voice-hearing in adults, with only 5.8% of adults (aged 18 to 60 years) and 4.5% of the elderly (60+) reporting these experiences. This suggests that voices are quite common in children and adolescents, with more than one in every 10 having these experiences. After adolescence, the number of people who hear voices appears to decrease substantially – by nearly half.
Children aged 5-12 years
Adolescents aged 13-17 years
Adults aged 18-60 years
Adults aged over 60 years
Other studies offer different statistics. For example, one UK study found that almost two-thirds of children have at least one ‘psychotic-like experience’ in their lives. But this research didn’t just focus on hearing voices, it included experiences of seeing visions, feelings beings that aren’t there, as well as unshakeable beliefs and fears.
When should you seek professional support?
If a child or young person is hearing voices, this doesn’t mean that they have (or will go on to develop) a mental health problem.
Rather, research has shown that voices can start in childhood for lots of different reasons. Sometimes they are related to medical problems such as epilepsy or an acute fever, but they can also occur in response to life stresses such as poor sleep, loneliness and emotional distress. Voice-hearing can also be triggered by trauma, such as the death of a close family member or friend, bullying, neglect and physical or sexual abuse.
In the majority of cases, where voices are linked to periods of anxiety and stress, voices in childhood disappear relatively quickly (within a few weeks or months), fading away as soon as the difficult situations resolve themselves.
Most clinicians agree that voices that are linked to positive emotions and don’t interfere with friendships or family life are usually nothing to worry about. However, if the voices are persistent and cause ongoing distress, you can see our section on ‘Looking for Support?’ for information on where to find help.
Case study: The Young Voices Study
The Young Voices study was set up by Sarah Parry (Manchester Metropolitan University) and Filippo Varese (University of Manchester) to gain a better understanding of voice-hearing in children aged 10–18, and the impact this experience has on young people and their families. Over 300 young voice-hearers and family members completed an international online survey designed to find out more about how young people make sense of their voices, how families and friends can support them, and where they might look for help.
You can read more about this study here and here.
Please note: This summary of the study’s initial findings is adapted from the report in Hearing and Listening, Manchester Metropolitan University.
Initial reports on the findings from the study reveal:
- Voices varied in frequency and characteristics (e.g. age, gender and tone) from person to person. They were unique for everybody.
- Over 30% of the young people in the study had experiences in other sensory modalities, including visions, smells or sensing the presence of a being nearby.
- Voices had many different functions for young people. They provided comfort, support, and stopped many from feeling lonely, much like imaginary companions. They also acted as important ‘coping strategies’ for some individuals.
- Voices often reflected the emotions of the young person, sounding calm or anxious depending on how the young person was feeling. Perhaps most importantly, the voices also changed in nature depending on how parents responded to their child. As such, parents are generally recommended to try to stay calm so as not to add to their child’s distress.
- Young people who were able to become curious about their voices and could explore why the voices were there appeared to be coping well, even with distressing voices. However, young people who attributed voice-hearing to illness or unexplained causes described more voice-related distress.
Find out more
Vaughan Bell (2015). Childhood hallucinations are surprisingly common – but why?. The Guardian.
Katie Conibear (2019). Living with Psychosis. Cosmopolitan.
Shanika Ranasinghe (2018). A Life Hearing Voices: How I manage auditory hallucinations. Elle.
Victoria Derbyshire Programme (2018). The children who hear voices. BBC.
Manchester Metropolitan University (2019). Hearing and Listening. Met Magazine.
A little insight: Young people who hear voices. – An animation produced by young people who hear voices at Voice Collective.
‘Listen up!’ – A podcast in which young voice-hearers from the North of England reflect on their experiences of hearing voices and of creating artworks for the world’s first major exhibition on voice-hearing.