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Children who hear voices over sustained period at risk of psychological problems in later life

12 May 2011

Approximately one in ten children between 7 and 8 years old hear voices. Psychologist Agna Bartels from the University Medical Center Groningen has concluded that this has little impact on most children and that the phenomenon usually disappears of its own accord. She has shown that a number of factors, such as traumatic experiences, can cause children to keep hearing voices or result in delusional behaviour. This is a risk factor for developing psychological problems in later life. Bartels will be awarded a PhD for her research at the University of Groningen on 18 May 2011.

In 2002-2003, Bartels examined a group of young children between 7 and 8 years of age to find out whether they heard voices. In a group of 3,870 children from the province of Groningen, 9% claimed to have heard one or more voices during the previous year while there was nobody in the direct vicinity. These children were then interviewed to establish the characteristics and severity of the voice or voices. Their parents were asked to complete a questionnaire about their child´s behaviour, and details of complications during the pregnancy and birth and information about developmental disorders was gleaned from the child & baby clinics. The children who heard voices were compared with a control group that corresponded in terms of age, gender and urbanity of home environment. A total of 694 children took part in the research group.

Rural versus urban

Children from rural areas were more prone to hearing voices, but the voices heard by children from towns and cities were more severe and had a greater impact. About 15% of the children who heard voices were troubled by it and their parents reported more problems, mainly psychosomatic symptoms such as stomach pains or headaches. When comparing the children who heard voices with the control group, there appeared to be few differences in terms of complications during the pregnancy and early development disorders.

Five years later

Five years later, 337 of the original group of 694 children were interviewed again. As with the first measurement, there was no difference in the incidence of hallucinations between girls and boys. Nearly a quarter of the children still heard voices, while 9% of children in the control group had started hearing voices during the previous five years. Having heard more than one voice during the first measurement and assigning this to an external source seemed to be firm indicator for continuing to hear voices. The children who reported hearing voices during the second measurement had undergone more traumatic and stressful experiences. They also made more frequent mention of hallucinatory experiences, psychosomatic illnesses and problems thinking. In addition, it was discovered that the ability to interpret other people’s emotions or intentions correctly helped to protect children who heard voices from delusions. 

An age-old phenomenon

People have reported hearing voices in many cultures throughout the ages. It can happen to anyone, regardless of gender, age, physical or mental health, social class or ethnic background. The cause, impact, treatment and progress of this phenomenon have been the subject of much research throughout the world.

Curriculum Vitae

Agna Bartels (Winschoten, 1955) graduated in health psychology at the Dutch Open University. She carried out her PhD research at the University Center of Psychiatry, University Medical Center Groningen, in the Rob Giel Research Center, which is part of the SHARE research institute. The research was funded by the Stichting Steun VCVGZ, the Stichting Open Ankh, the Bensdorp Fund, Maastricht University Medical Centre and the Rob Giel Research Center. Bartels’ thesis is entitled ´Auditory hallucinations in childhood.´ Supervisors: D. Wiersma, J. van Os. Co-supervisor: J.A. Jenner. Having finished her PhD research, Bartels will now stay on as a researcher at the University Center for Psychiatry, as well as working at the Lentis Centre for Integrative Psychiatry.


Last modified:13 March 2020 01.56 a.m.
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