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My child is seeing ghosts: Is this normal?

Some children report seeing ghosts, chatting at night with dead relatives, or can recount past lives. Is this normal childhood behaviour?

When Rosemary Counter, the original author of this piece, was about three, her mother took her to her friend Donna’s farmhouse. As the grown-ups sipped tea in the kitchen, Rosemary played freely throughout the house – this was the ’80s – until reporting back with some alarming news: A little girl was crying at the top of the stairs. Rosemary’s mom dismissed it as just her imagination while Donna’s face turned white. She just remembered what her daughter, long grown up and moved out, used to see and say as a child: a little girl crying at the top of the stairs. Three decades later, this un-fact-checkable story has gone the way of many campfire tales. It’s mostly fun and only partly scary, though firm proof for this undeniable truth: Children see things we adults can’t.

The phenomenon of kids seeing ghosts

If you don’t feel like sleeping tonight, I suggest heading over to Reddit and falling down a terrifying rabbit hole. Jezebel collects and publishes an annual list that confirms children see ghosts all the time. In parenting groups, dozens of moms and dads talk about their children’s ghost encounters: a little boy who saw “zillions of people” walking slowly through an empty cemetery; a two-year-old who reported “Grandma’s in the sky with Pappy!” minutes after her grandmother’s death; and a child’s especially disturbing imaginary friend named Suzy – her father’s late first wife.

The phenomenon of kids seeing ghosts thrives online, but no matter how improbable or unprovable, the volume of these stories alone is enough to make scientists take notice. “There are admittedly lots of reports of kids seeing ghosts,” says Jacqueline Woolley, a psychology professor at the University of Texas. Woolley’s research dives deep into children’s evaluation and understanding of reality vs. the fantastical. She revels in my tale about the girl on the stairs: “That’s enough to make you believe that it’s real – for about a millisecond,” she says. However, there are many holes in stories about ghosts, Woolley says. Namely, the brain.

“Our minds naturally make connections between events, whether they’re connected or not. The brain pays attention to evidence that fits our theory and ignores the evidence that doesn’t fit,” she says. For example, it’s far more likely that a child overheard the name “Suzy” a hundred times than the undead Suzy lingers in this realm for an eternity of tea parties. Next, consider children’s fertile imaginations and you could easily argue that Suzy is not a ghost but actually an imaginary friend.

“We know that between a third and two-thirds of children have imaginary companions,” says Charles Fernyhough, a psychologist at Durham University, where he investigates the phenomenon of hallucinations. Not too long ago, imaginary friends were considered a precursor to mental illness; now we know they’re a positive sign of healthy child development. “Now adults come to me concerned if their kid doesn’t have one,” he says.

Fantasy versus reality

Developmental psychologists such as Jean Piaget have been fascinated by the murky line between fantasy and reality for kids – whether it’s imaginary friends or dreams or, yup, ghosts. Old thinking assumed kids just couldn’t differentiate between what’s real and what’s not, while new thinkers such as Woolley believe “kids know full what’s real, even if it looks like they can’t tell the difference”. Fernyhough falls somewhere in the middle: “I think on occasion kids do mix up imagination and reality to have something like a hallucination-like experience.” If you would never tell your child their imaginary friend isn’t real, or that they’re just imagining things or even lying, you should treat an encounter with a so-called ghost the same way. Which presents a strange question: How should you react if your little one reports a visit from the other side?

How to react if your child reports a visit from the other side?

Most importantly, do not flip out. “A lot of parents get worried about imaginary companions and strange experiences,” Fernyhough says. “Unless there’s real distress, do not worry.” To know whether there’s real distress, just ask the child. “You want to work with the emotion, not the ghost,” Woolley says. Now is not the time for a grown-up lesson on imagination vs. reality. “Because if they’re scared, it doesn’t matter anyway,” she adds.

Instead, Woolley suggests you “work within the fantasy” just like you might for a monster under the bed: “Engage with the kid as to what it looks like and what it does. Ask her if she’s scared of the ghost or if she likes it and if she’s seen it before.”

A scary ghost can be tweaked as necessary – maybe you can help the child pretend he’s in old-timey underwear, for example – to become a friendly one. “Then it’s up to you as a parent to decide if you want to encourage or discourage this belief.”

* This article was first published on ‘Washington Post’.

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