6 Types Of Hallucinations In Children, Causes, And Treatment

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Hallucinations in children can be a part of normal development and often resolve without complications. These are sensory experiences without real stimuli. Children may tell you about something that they see, hear, smell, taste, or feel that is not present.

Hallucinations can be pleasant or unpleasant and may interfere with the child’s normal functioning. Some children may experience hallucinations due to the early onset of psychiatric disorders, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, or non-psychotic illnesses, such as high fever. Although most childhood hallucinations can be transient, it is recommended to seek medical attention.

Read on to know the prevalence, causes, types, and treatments of hallucination in children.

Are Childhood Hallucinations Common?

Recent data shows that hallucinatory experiences are common in children but more so in adults (1). A study published by the Cambridge University Press (2018) stated an increased prevalence rate of around 13–17% among children between ages nine and 12 and a decrease to 5–7.5% in adolescence (13 to 18 years) (2).

In clinical practice, hallucinations are rare in children younger than seven years of age. However, it may be undetected because of the inability to communicate their feelings due to limited cognitive development.

What Are The Types Of Hallucinations In Children?

Sensory hallucinations can be of different types, and some children may experience more than one type of hallucination.

Some types of hallucinations are as follows (2)(3):

  • Visual hallucinations are when a child sees things that do not exist, whether an object, person, visual pattern, or light. For example, the child may see flashing lights invisible to others or a person not in the room.
  • Auditory hallucinations cause children to hear non-existent sounds such as hissing or whistling. Children most commonly hear voices saying something critical or complimentary or a running commentary of someone’s actions. Some children experience command hallucinations, where voices instruct the child to do specific actions, including serious and life-threatening ones.
  • Olfactory hallucinations also called “phantom smell” or phantosmia, cause the child to experience smells that do not exist. They may complain of unpleasant odors, such as smoke, rotten flesh, urine, feces, or vomit, or pleasant smells. They may experience it in one or both nostrils persistently or occasionally (4).
  • Tactile hallucinations cause a feeling of being touched. Many children may complain of feeling bugs crawling on their skin. It is often seen in the use of illegal drugs such as cocaine or amphetamine.
  • Gustatory hallucinations cause taste sensations of something not present, including unpleasant and strange tastes such as a metallic taste.
  • Hallucinations related to sleep may be experienced when waking up (hypnopompic) and falling asleep (hypnagogic). Children may see moving objects, form images, hear sounds, or say they saw a ghost (5).

Auditory and visual hallucinations are more common in children, though the type of hallucination experienced may depend on the brain area involved. All hallucinations, even ones that do not cause bad sensations, require medical attention to evaluate and treat the underlying cause.

What Are The Causes Of Hallucinations In Children?

Children may have hallucinations as a normal part of their development, which often resolves quickly. However, it can be uncomfortable for many children.

Some of the identifiable causes of hallucinations in children are (3)(5).

  • Extreme tiredness or sleepiness
  • Some high-dose prescription medications
  • Severe emotional stress
  • Physical illnesses such as infections, adrenal glands problems, thyroid problems, seizures, and high fever
  • Vision loss can cause Charles Bonnet syndrome, where visual hallucinations occur when the brain adjusts to vision loss
  • Damage to the brain sensory system from viruses, trauma, toxic substances, illegal drugs, alcohol use, epilepsy, or brain tumor
  • Recent bereavement of loved ones may cause auditory hallucinations of their voices, often making the child believe the person is with them.

Seek pediatric care if your child has hallucinations since they can cause nervousness and fear. Treating medical conditions and providing emotional support and encouragement may help manage some hallucinations in children.

What Are The Treatments For Hallucinations In Children?

Psychiatric disorders and some conditions causing hallucinations require medical treatment. Most children receive longer-term prescriptions to treat the psychiatric causes of hallucinations. The treatment may begin with specialized therapies and progress to antipsychotics if required.

The treatments for childhood hallucinations may include (2)(6).

  • Psychotherapies, including psychoeducation, family therapies, de-addiction therapies, and cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Antipsychotic medications such as risperidone or aripiprazole help manage hallucinations due to psychiatric disorders in children.
  • Hallucinations due to non-psychiatric disorders can be managed by treating the underlying cause, such as correcting vision problems, using anti-seizure drugs for epilepsy, or surgically removing brain tumors.
  • Associated psychiatric disorders are often treated to reduce anxiety or stress or regulate moods to ease hallucination-related distress.

In addition to this, providing early treatment for fever and other illnesses in children and ensuring adequate sleep and rest can also help avoid or manage hallucinations.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How should I handle a child’s hallucination?

If your child is having hallucinations, talk to them about how they feel and try to understand the cause of these hallucinations. Take an interest in their school and social lives, among other things. If you are still concerned, consult a physician or pediatrician so they can help or refer you to a child or adolescent psychiatrist (6).

2. How common are visual hallucinations in children?

Visual hallucinations are more common in children with psychosis, such as those with emotional and behavioral disorders, bipolar I disorder, or childhood-onset schizophrenia (2).

3. Can ADHD cause hallucinations?

Yes. ADHD can cause auditory hallucinations, which are significantly mediated by dysphoric mood, in adults and children (7). In addition, FDA-approved ADHD medications can cause hallucinations as an adverse drug reaction (8).

4. Can a 3-year-old hallucinate?

Yes. Hallucinations have been observed in toddlers and preschoolers and are termed “early-onset hallucinations” and “very early onset hallucinations.” In most cases, these hallucinations are visual and tactile. It is not uncommon and is associated with severe anxiety and phobic behavior in toddlers (1) (9).

Not all hallucinations in children are caused by psychosis or psychiatric disorders, and long-term therapies help improve hallucinations in most cases. Talk to your child to understand the bizarre sensations they experience, and seek medical care if your child has extremely distressing or life-threatening hallucinations.

Key Pointers

  • Hallucinations in children are common and can be a part of their normal development.
  • Auditory and visual hallucinations are common in children among the different hallucination types that exist.
  • Extreme tiredness, intake of high-dose medications, and emotional stress are a few reasons that could cause hallucinations in children.
  • Treating the underlying cause and providing emotional support may help manage hallucinations in children.

References:

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  1. Kim Maijer, et al.; (2019);Hallucinations in Children and Adolescents: An Updated Review and Practical Recommendations for Clinicians.
    https://academic.oup.com/schizophreniabulletin/article/45/Supplement_1/S5/5305656
  2. Assessing and managing hallucinations in children and adolescents.
    https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/bjpsych-advances/article/assessing-and-managing-hallucinations-in-children-and-adolescents/9DFC17F7B788E4DA68455B51B4B7FF88
  3. Hallucinations.
    https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003258.htm
  4. What to know about phantom smells (phantosmia).
    https://ibcces.org/learning/what-to-know-about-phantom-smells-phantosmia/
  5. Hallucinations and hearing voices.
    https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/conditions/hallucinations-and-hearing-voices#toc-2
  6. Hearing Voices and Seeing Things.
    https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Hearing-Voices-and-Seeing-Things-102.aspx
  7. Steven Marwaha et al.; (2015); Adult attention deficit hyperactivity symptoms and psychosis: Epidemiological evidence from a population survey in England.
    https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2015.07.075
  8. Andrew D Mosholder et al.; (2009); Hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms associated with the use of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder drugs in children.
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19171629/
  9. Herbert A. Schreier and Judith A. Libow; (1986); Acute Phobic Hallucinations in Very Young Children.
    https://www.jaacap.org/article/S0002-7138(10)60020-9/fulltext
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Dr Bisny T. Joseph

Dr. Bisny T. Joseph is a Georgian Board-certified physician. She has completed her professional graduate degree as a medical doctor from Tbilisi State Medical University, Georgia. She has 3+ years of experience in various sectors of medical affairs as a physician, medical reviewer, medical writer, health coach, and Q&A expert. Her interest in digital medical education and patient education made... more

Dr. Maymunah Yusuf Kadiri

(MD)
Dr. Maymunah Yusuf Kadiri, popularly referred to as ‘The Celebrity Shrink,’ is an award-winning neuro-psychiatrist and mental health advocate with over 15 years experience. She is the medical director and psychiatrist-in-chief at Pinnacle Medical Services. She has created the innovative mental health app in Africa, HOW BODI. Dr. Kadiri is a Goldman Sachs Scholar on Entrepreneurial Management of Pan Atlantic... more