Printer Friendly

Hallucinations in children: Diagnostic and treatment strategies; consider developmental, medical, and other causes to identify nonpsychotic hallucinations.

Hallucinations in children are of grave concern to parents and clinicians, but aren't necessarily a symptom of mental illness. In adults, hallucinations usually are linked to serious psychopathology; however, in children they are not uncommon and may be part of normal development (Box, page 54).

A hallucination is a false auditory, visual, gustatory, tactile, or olfactory perception not associated with real external stimuli. (1) It must be differentiated from similar phenomenon such as illusions (misperception of actual stimuli), elaborate fantasies, imaginary companions, and eidetic images (visual imag es stored in memory).

Common, yet a cause for concern

Epidemiologic studies show 2.8% of adults report hallucinations before age 21. (2) Nonpsychotic children as young as age 5 have reported hallucinations. (3) Hallucinatory phenomenon may be present in 8% to 21% of all 11-year-old children; two-thirds of these patients have no DSM-TV-TR diagnosis. (4), (5) However, 1 evaluation of 62 nonpsychotic hallucinating children treated in a psychiatric emergency department (ED):

* 34% had depression

* 22% had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

* 21% had disruptive behavior disorders

* 23% had other diagnoses. (6)


Studies suggest that children who have hallucinations but no other psychotic symptoms have a better long-term prognosis than those with additional psychotic symptoms. (7) A 17-year longitudinal study of children with hallucinations and concurrent emotional and conduct problems found:

* up to 50% of patients still experience hallucinations at age 30

* hallucinations did not significantly predict clinical outcome at age 30

* childhood hallucinations did not increase the risk for psychosis, depression, organic brain disorder, or other psychiatric illnesses. (7)

In a study of children with psychosis and disruptive disorders, at 2-to 8-years follow-up 50% met criteria for major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, or schizophreniform disorders, (8) In a 15-year longitudinal study of 11-year-olds, self-reported psychotic symptoms--such as delusional beliefs and hallucinatory experiences--predicted a high risk of schizophreniform disorder at age 26. (9) These studies suggest that experiencing significant disruptions in thoughts and perceptions during childhood may be related to later development of prominent mood and thought disorders.

Differential diagnosis

Table 1 lists possible causes of hallucination in children. (6), (10-13) Hallucinations during childhood can occur in the context of several psychiatric disorders, including:

Table 1

Possible causes of hallucinations in children and adolescents

Normal development

Nonpsychotic psychopathoiogy

Psychosocial adversity

Psychotic illness


Family dysfunction


Developmental difficulties

Sociocultural interaction (immigration)

Poorly differentiated male and female family roles

Presence or absence of different mother figures

Cultural factors (witches, ghosts, spiritualism)

Hallucination of deceased parent, when unresolved mourning persists in the surviving parent

Source: References 6, 10-13

* schizophrenia

* schizophreniform disorders

* mood disorders with psychotic features (Table 2). (14)
Table 2

Content of hallucinations may point to their cause

Schizophrenia or other  May hear several voices making a critical
psychotic disorders     commentary Command hallucinations telling
                        patients to harm themselves or others
                        Bizarre voices like 'a computer in my head'
                        or aliens Voices of someone familiar or a
                        'relative' Visual hallucinations of devils,
                        scary faces, space creatures, and skeletons

Depressive disorders    Usually a single voice speaking from outside
                        the patient's head with derogatory or
                        suicidal content

Bipolar disorder        Usually involves grandiose ideas about
                        power, worth, knowledge, family, or

Bereavement             Usually a transient (visual or auditory)
                        perception of the deceased person

Posttraumatic stress    Transient visual hallucinations, usually
disorder                with phobic content

Source: Reference 11

They can also manifest as comorbid or associated symptoms of disorders not commonly associated with hallucinations, such as ADHD, disruptive disorders, anxiety disorders, and prodromal clinical states. Medications, substance use, and organic and metabolic disorders also must be considered in the differential diagnosis (Table 3, page 56).

Table 3

Hallucinations in young patients: Differential diagnoses

Psychiatric disorders that are usually defined by psychotic features, including:

* schizophrenia and schizophreniform disorders

* bipolar disorder with psychotic features

* major depressive disorder with psychotic features

Psychiatric disorders that commonly do not include hallucinations but in which hallucinations can occur as comorbid or associated symptoms, such as:

* disruptive behavior disorders

* anxiety disorders

* posttraumatic stress disorder

* adjustment disorder

* grief or bereavement

* dissociative disorders

* attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder

* oppositional defiant disorder

* Tourette syndrome

* language disorders

Prodromal and at-risk clinical states of psychiatric disorders (psychotic and mood disorders)

Medications (steroids, anticholinergics, stimulants)

Drug intoxication and abuse

* hallucinogens

* cannabis

* ecstasy (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine)

* cocaine

* amphetamines

* barbiturates

* opiates

Organic or nonpsychiatric disorders

* infections

* fever

* migraine

* seizures

* neoplasms

Metabolic disorders

* thyroid disorders

* parathyroid disorders

* adrenal disorders

* Wilson's disease.

* porphyria

* beriberi

* electrolyte disturbances

Source: For reference citations, see this article at

Hallucinations may occur in low-functioning or anxious children, in the context of psychosocial adversity or abuse, and during bereavement of a deceased parent when the surviving parent is emotionally j unavailable. (11-13), (15-17) Rule out hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations, which are predominantly visual hallucinations that occur immediately before falling asleep and during the transition from sleep to wakefulness, respectively. (18) Rarely, a child who has had hallucinations for some time may learn to complain of them when he or she is not hallucinating in order to obtain a primary or secondary gain, such as getting attention from caregivers.

Little is known about psychosis and hallucinations in preschoolers (age [less than or equal to] 5); therefore, their language use may help assessment. Because of cognitive immaturity, children often use illogical thinking and loose association and may describe their thoughts as "voices." This is common in children with language disorders--and sometimes in healthy patients--who may talk about voices because they cannot describe their own thoughts.

Children with ADHD and/or oppositional defiant disorder often are impulsive and show poor judgment and may blame voices for telling them to do bad things. These "hallucinations" may represent internal thoughts battling with the child's conscience. (6) Auditory and visual hallucinations have been reported in children with Tourette syndrome, especially when associated with ADHD or obsessive-compulsive disorder. (19)

Medical causes. Electrolyte disturbances, metabolic disorders, fever, and serious infections are common nonpsychiatric causes of hallucinations. (20) Brain neoplasm--particularly in visual association areas, the temporal lobe, or portions of the optic nerve or retina--also may produce hallucinations, which can be complex with full images. (21)

Medications such as steroids and anticholinergics may cause hallucinations. Case studies report visual and tactile hallucinations with methylphenidate therapy that resolve after discontinuing the medication. (22) Illicit substances, including cannabis, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), cocaine, amphetamines, 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), opiates, and barbiturates, can induce hallucinations.

Suspect substance-induced hallucinations if your patient shows:

* acute onset of hallucinations

* dilated pupils

* extreme agitation or drowsiness

* other signs of intoxication.

Hallucinations caused by seizure disorders are rare but can be somatosensory, visual (occipital lobe focus), auditory, olfactory (uncinate, complex partial), or gustatory. The hallucinations may be unformed (flashing lights or rushing noises) or formed (images, spoken words, or music) and could be part of the aura arising from the temporal lobe (dreamlike, flash-blacks). Command hallucinations are rare and adult and pedictric patients usually sense they are not real. (23)

Migraines occur in approximately 5% of prepubertal children and often are comorbid with affective and anxiety disorders. (24) Hallucinations associated with migraine commonly are visual, but gustatory, olfactory, and auditory hallucinations also can occur, with or without headaches. (3) Any hallucination associated with headaches should be investigated neurologically. Other diagnostic aspects of hallucinations to consider while interviewing children are listed in Table 4 (page 58). (25-28)

Table 4

Diagnostic consideration when assessing a hallucinating child


Hallucinations are a symptom, not a diagnosis

They can have a developmental, neurologic, metabolic, or psychiatric basis

Visual, gustatory, and olfactory hallucinations suggest a medical-or substance-related origin.

Schizophrenia is rare before age 11

In pervasive development disorders, schizophrenia is diagnosed only if prominent delusions and hallucinations are present for at least 1 month.

Hallucinations are not uncommon in major depressive disorder but may be associated with higher risk of bipolar disorder.

During interviewing, remember that children:

are highly suggestible

may answer questions in the affirmative to get attention or to please the interviewer

may not fully or partially understand what is being asked

may blame their misbehavior on voices to escape punishment

may not distinguish between night terrors and illusions

Sources: References 25-28

Psychotic disorder not otherwise specified.

(NOS) in children often is overused and misused. One reason could be that DSM-IV-TR does not have a category for hallucinations in nonpsychotic children or for children who are at risk for psychosis. However, recommendations regarding the diagnosis of psychotic disorder NOS note it:

* may be used if uncertainty persists after ruling out all other diagnoses.

* should be avoided when hallucinations occur in nonpsychotic children.

* should not be used longitudinally if a clinician later determines a specific disorder accounts for the hallucinations. (29).


Addressing underlying medical or psychiatric illness, including substance use, is primary. Some adolescents or children may think that cannabis use is relatively benign. Discuss the risks of cannabis use in an age-appropriate manner.

In the ED. Children or adolescents who present with hallucinations in the ED should undergo a thorough evaluation that explores the differential diagnoses. Suggestions for evaluating patients in this setting appear in Table 5 (page 59). (21)

Prodromal or at-risk children. There is no consensus on how early to initiate treatment for children in the prodromal stages of psychosis. Early identification and treatment is imperative because duration of untreated psychosis (DUP) is a primary predictor of treatment response in first-admission patients, and longer DUP corresponds to poorer prognosis in children. (30)

Table 5

Suggestions for evaluating hallucinating children in the ED

Evaluate risk factors for suicidality

Rule out medical and neurologic causes, including substance abuse/intoxication

Identify underlying psychopathological, psychosocial, and cultural factors

Contact key adult informants for collateral information

Decide if hallucinations are psychotic or nonpsychotic

Reassure your patients that hearing voices does not mean that they are 'crazy'

Evaluate hallucinations in the context of other features of psychoses (onset, frequency, severity, and chronicity)

Initiate psychotherapy and antidepressants if needed for patients with underlying depression, anxiety, or PTSD

ED: emergency department; PTSD: posttraumatic stress disorder

Source: Reference 21

Assessment scales for early identification of psychosis have limitations because most are not standardized for use in children age <14. To assess symptoms and predict future psychosis in children consider using:

* Scale of Prodromal Symptoms

* Structured Interview for Prodromal Symptoms

* Comprehensive Assessment of At-Risk Mental States

* Bonn Scale for the Assessment of Basic Symptoms.

A hallucinating child may be considered prodromal if he or she has:

* 30% drop in Global Assessment Functioning score in the past month

* a first-degree relative with affective or nonaffective psychotic disorder or schizotypal personality disorder. (31)

Antipsychotics. When treating children, use antipsychotics with caution and consider short-and long-term risks and benefits. Early treatment is indicated when hallucinations are among a patient's psychotic symptoms; however, antipsychotic use for children in the prodromal phase lacks consensus. McGlashan et al (32) showed that in 60 high-risk patients (mean age 16), olanzapine, 5 to 15 mg/d, reduced conversion to psychosis by 50% over 6 months. McGorry et al (33) observed that in 59 ultrahigh risk patients (mean age 20), adding low-dose risperidone (1 to 2 mg/d) and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) was superior to case management and supportive psychotherapy in preventing psychosis after 6 months of treatment, but this difference was not maintained at 6 months of follow-up.

CBT slows progression to psychosis in ultra-high risk patients and reduces positive symptoms more specifically than it improves emotional dysfunction. (34) CBT for psychosis is based on the concept that auditory hallucinations have an underlying personalized meaning or cognitive schema. (35) The initial goal of treatment is to engage the child and understand:

* What do the hallucinations mean to the patient?

* How did they start?

* Can the child start or stop them?

* What does the patient think they are?

The clinician then strives to help the child identify alternative explanations for these hallucinations and develop coping strategies. (36) "Normalizing" the voices helps the child attribute these voices to a less anxiety-provoking cause. (37) Consider suggesting common reasons for the hallucinations, such as:

* lack of sleep

* isolation

* dehydration

* extreme stress

* strong thoughts (obsessions)

* fever and illness

* lack of food

* drugs and alcohol.

If your patient learns that any of these reasons could explain the hallucinations, he or she may start to have a less delusional understanding of them. Suggest that the voices are "real" only if your patient believes it.

Help children develop coping strategies to control auditory hallucinations such as:

* humming

* listening to music

* reading (forwards and backwards)

* talking to others

* exercising

* singing

* medication

* ignoring the voices.

With normalization and other coping strategies, children with visual hallucinations can learn to transform in their mind the frightful image to a funnier one, which is less anxiety-provoking and gives them a sense of control.


In children, hallucinations are not always a sign of psychosis

Although hallucinations frequently considered synonymous with psychotic disorders, in children this rare. Neurobiologic studies (fMRI) of adults show activation Broca's area (left inferior frontal gyrus) seconds before patients perceive auditory hallucinations, may be misidentified self-talk. (a), (b) According to Piaget, (c) children age <7 may have difficulty distinguishing between events occurring while dreaming and awake. He further theorized that nonpathologic hallucinations could become pathologic when combined with trauma such as abuse. Strauss (d) suggested that psychosis might lie on a continuum with normal phenomenon. In a case series, Wilking and Pauli (e) described how developmental difficulties, deprivation, sociocultural conditions, and family relationships could contribute to impaired reality testing.

Imaginary friends or companions are common among all children. Children who have imaginary friends are more likely to report hearing "voices." (f) Imaginary friends:

* appear, function, and disappear at the wish of the child

* pose no threat and often are a source of comfort

* often can be described in detail

* are not ego-dystonic. (9)

Also, children with imaginary friends will not show evidence of a thought disorder.

Source: For reference citations, see this article at

Related Resources

* Bartels-Velthuis AA, Jenner JA, van de Willige G, et al. Prevalence and correlates of auditory vocal hallucinations in middle childhood. Br J Psychiatry. 2010; 196(1):41-46.

* Cepeda C. Psychotic symptoms in children and adolescents: assessment, differential diagnosis, and treatment. NewYork, NY: Routledge; 2007.

Drug Brand Names

Methylphenidate * Ritalin

Risperidone * Risperdal

Olanzapine * Zyprexa


The authors report no financial relationship with any company whose products are mentioned in this article or with manufacturers of competing products.

Clinical Point

Studies suggest that children who have hallucinations but no other psychotic symptoms have a better long-term prognosis

Clinical Point

Children with language disorders may talk about 'voices' because they cannot describe their own thoughts

Clinical Point

A diagnosis of psychotic disorder NOS should be avoided when hallucinations occur in nonpsychotic children

Clinical Point

Early treatment is indicated when hallucinations are among a patient's psychotic symptoms; antipsychotic use lacks consensus

Clinical point

CBT slow progression to psychosis in ultrahigh risk patients and reduces positive

Clinical Point Children with visual hallucinations can learn to transform in their mind the frightful image to a funnier one


Visit this article at for a bibliography of childhood hallucinations literature


Discuss this article at

Bottom Line

Hallucinations in children and adolescents are not necessarily a sign of psychosis. Consider developmental, neurologic, medical, and other causes in the differential diagnosis. Normalization and other coping strategies can reduce children's anxiety and give them a sense of control.


(1.) Sadock BJ, Sadock VA. Kaplan and Sadock's concise textbook of clinical psycliiatrv. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA; Lippincott Williams;2008:26.

(2.) Fenning S, Susser ES, Pilowsky DJ, et al. Childhood hallucinations preceding the first psychotic episode. J Nerv Ment Dis. 1997;185:115-117.

(3.) Schreier HA. Auditory hallucinations in nonpsychotic children with affective syndromes and migraines: report of 13 cases. J Child Neurol. 1998;13:377-382.

(4.) McGee P., Williams S, Poulton R. Hallucinations in nonpsychotic children. J Am Acad Child Ad.oiese Psychiatry. 2000;39:12-13.

(5.) Yoshizumi T, Murase S, Honjo S, et al. Hallucinatory experiences in a community sample of Japanese children. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2004;43:1030-1036.

(6.) Edelsohn GA, Rabinovich H, Portnoy R. Hallucinations in nonpsychotic children: findings from a psychiatric emergency service. Ann N Y Acad Sciences. 2003;1008: 261-264.

(7.) Rothstein A. Hallucinatory phenomenon in childhood: a critique of the literature. J Am Acad Child Psychiatry. 1981;20:623-635.

(8.) Nicholson R, Lenane M, Brookner F, et al. Children and adolescercs with psychotic disorder not otherwise specified: a 2-to 8-year follow-up study. Compr Psychiatry. 2001;42:319-325.

(9.) Poulton R, Caspi A, Moffitt TE, et al. Children's self reported psychotic symptoms and adult schizophreniform disorder: a 15-year longitudinal study. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2000;57:1053-1058.

(10.) Wilking VN, Paoli C, The hallucinatory experience: an attempt at a psychodynamic classification and reconsideration of its diagnostic significance. J Am Acad Child Psychiatry. 1966;5:431-440.

(11.) Schreier HA. Hallucinations in nonpsychotic children: more common than we think? J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1999:38 (5).623-625.

(12.) Kotsopoulos S, Konigsberg J, Cote A, et al. Hallucinatory experiences in nonpsychotic children. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1987;26:375-380.

(13.) Yates TT, Bannard JR. The "haunted" child: grief, hallucinations and family dynamics. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry I988;27:573-531.

(14.) Sadock BJ, Sadock VA. Kaplan and Sadock's synopsis of psychiatry. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins; 2003:1276-1277,1283.

(15.) FamularoP, Kinscherff R, Fenton T. Psychiatric diagnosis of maltreated children.: preliminary findings. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1992;31:863-867.

(16.) Putnam FW, Peterson Q. Further validation of the child dissociative checklist. Dissociation, 1994;7:204-211.

(17.) Kaufman J, Birmaher B, Clayton S, et al. Case study: trauma-related hallucinations. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1997;36(11):1602-1605.

(18.) Sadock BJ, Sadock VA. Kaplan and Sadock's comprehensive textbook or psychiatry. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins; 2005.

(19.) Kerbeshian J, Burd L. Are schizaphreniform symptoms present in attenuated form in children with Tourette Disorder and other developmental disorders? Can J Psychiatry. 1987;32(2):123-135.

(20.) Pao M, Lohman C, Gracey D, et al. Visual, tactile, and phobic hallucinations: recngnitior, and management in the emergency department. Pediatr Emerg Care. 2004; 20:30-34.

(21.) Edelsohn GA, Hallucinations in children and adolescents: considerations in the emergency setting. Am J Psychiatry. 2006;163(5):781-785.

(22.) Gross-Tsur V, Joseph A, Shalev RS. Hallucinations during methylphenidate therapy. Neurology. 2004;63:753-754.

(23.) Wyllie E. The treatment of epilepsy: principles and practices, Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins; 1993.

(24.) Saeed MA, Pumariega AJ, Cinciripini PM. Psychopharmarologicai management of migraine in children in children and adolescents. J Child Adolesc Psychopharmacol. 1992;2:199-211.

(25.) Chambers WJ, Puig-Antich J, Tabrizi MA, et al. Psychotic symptoms in prepubertal major depressive disorder. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1982;39:921-927.

(26.) Volkmar FR. Childhood and adolescent psychosis: a review of the past 10 years. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 1996;35:843-851.

(27.) First MB, Frances A, Pincus HA. DSM-IV handbook of differential diagnosis. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press; 1995.

(28.) Birmaher B, Ryan ND, Williamson DE, et al. Childhood and adolescent depression: a review of the past 1(1 years. Part I. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1996;35: 1427-1439.

(29.) Meyer SE., Bearden CE, Lux CR, et al. The psychosis prodrome in adolescent patients viewed through the lens of DSM-IV. J Child Adolesc Psychopharmacol. 2005; .15 (3): 434451.

(30.) Drake RJ, Haley CJ, Akhtar S, et al. Causes and consequences of duration of untreated psychosis in schizophrenia. Br J Psychiatry. 2000;177:511-515.

(31.)McGorry PD, Yung AR, Phillips LJ. The "close-in" or ultra high-risk model: a safe and effective strategy for research and clinical, intervention It: prepsychotic mental disorder. Schizophr Bull. 2003;29(4):771-790.

(32.) McGlashan TH, Zipursky RB, Perkins DO, et al. Olanzapine versus placebo treatment of schizophrenia prodrome: one year results. Poster presented at: International Congress of Schizophrenia Research, Colorado Springs, CO, April-May 2003.

(33.) McGorry PD, Yung AR, Phillips LJ, et al. Randomized controlled trial of interventions designed to reduce the risk of progression to first episode psychosis in a clinical sample with subthreshold symptoms. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2002;59:921-928.

(34.) French P, Shryane N, Bentall RP., et al. Effects of cognitive therapy on the longitudinal development of psychotic experiences in people at high risk of developing psychosis. Br J Psychiatry Suppl. 2007;51:s82-87.

(35.) Turkington D, Siddle R. Cognitive therapy for the treatment of delusions. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. 1998:4:235-242.

(36.) Sosland MD, Pinninti N. Five ways to quiet auditory hallucinations. Current Psychiatry. 2005;4:40.

(37.) Kingdon DC, Turkington D. Cognitive behavioral therapy of schizophrenia New York, NY: Guilford Press; Press: 1994

Kanwar Ajit S. Sidhu, MD Assistant professor Department of behavior medicine and psychiatry

T. O. Dickey III, MD Associate professor and program director Department of behavior medicine and psychiatry

West Virginia University Charleston, WV
COPYRIGHT 2010 Quadrant Healthcom, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Sidhu, Kanwar Ajit S.; Dickey, T. O. III
Publication:Current Psychiatry
Article Type:Disease/Disorder overview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2010
Previous Article:Differential diagnosis and therapeutic management of schizoaffective disorder.
Next Article:Doxepin for insomnia.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters