A psychology expert weighs in on why it's totally normal for your child to be seeing spirits. Yes, really.
Ghosts, goblins, and ghouls, oh my!
Nothing screams “scary season” like a supposed ghost sighting. Whether it be a door opening from a “gust of wind” or floorboards creaking in an empty room, things always seem a bit creepier come October. And when only your kiddos seem to see the spirits? Now, that’s scary.
As Halloween rolls around, there are tons of stories circulating on the internet detailing so-called child ghost sightings. Many parents are taking to TikTok, Instagram, and Reddit to share eerie experiences with their own “supernatural” children.
Mommy TikToker and mother of four, Mara Doemland, is one of these influencers. Doemland’s two sons, Murphy and Indy, both began seeing ghosts when they reached 18 months old. While Murphy developed a more “playful” relationship with the supposed spirits, Indy is still terrified.
Doemland says a few nights a week, Indy will spot a ghost in the bedroom and essentially freak out.
“He looks in the corner of the room and says, ‘there’s a ghost there,’ and it’s terrifying to see the fear in his face,” she says. “It makes me scared because he's so convinced that there's something there.”
Doemland has since established a nighttime routine with Indy where she pretends to “fight” the ghost, punching and hitting the air until he calms down. Even so, Doemland admitted that it’s gotten to the point where even she has started imagining shadows.
Creepy experiences like Doemland’s are prompting parents to ask an important question: Can kids really see ghosts? Are they somehow more in tune with supernatural forces than adults?
To investigate this phenomenon further, we spoke with Jacqueline Woolley, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, whose work focuses on children’s ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
Read on to hear a psychologist’s perspective on these supernatural encounters—plus tips to help your child navigate their own out-of-this-world experience.
<strong>Can Kids See Ghosts—<em>For Real</em>?</strong>
It’s no secret that kids have rampant imaginations. After all, it’s one of our favorite things about them. There is a certain thrill to fantasy and a lure to the “surreal” at a young age. According to Dr. Woolley, between 30% and 50% of children have an imaginary companion at some point in their lives.
Dr. Woolley suggests that many of these supposed ghost sightings may be due to culture. She says that children raised in households that discuss supernatural beings are more likely to identify these experiences as such, while kids who aren’t exposed to this sort of talk will be less likely to classify them in this way. And it's no wonder we might be hearing about this phenomenon so much lately—a 2022 survey found that nearly half of Americans believe their house is haunted.
“If you ask a kid if they believe in Santa Claus on December 23, you’re going to get a higher level of belief than on July 23 because you want to believe [in it] around Christmas time."
While Doemland noted that Indy might not necessarily have a concept of what a “ghost” is, he likely learned the term from his siblings. Once he first started crying and pointing out things in the corner of the room, his siblings told him that what he was seeing “might be a ghost.” Since then, he has stuck with the term and run with it.
And this phenomenon only grows more prevalent during Halloween time, as these creepy topics become more top of mind. “If you ask a kid if they believe in Santa Claus on December 23, you’re going to get a higher level of belief than on July 23 because you want to believe [in it] around Christmas time,” says Dr. Woolley. “To some extent, that desire does kind of foster belief.”
Regardless of whether or not one truly believes that spirits are real, there is something fun about the concept. And no, Dr. Woolley says ghosts do not in fact exist.
What To Do if Your Kid Is Seeing Ghosts
Choosing a method of action truly depends on your end goal. If you are trying to endorse your kid’s beliefs in the supernatural, your approach will likely be far different from someone trying to comfort a scared child.
While telling your child “ghosts aren’t real!” to soothe their fears may seem like the easiest option, Dr. Woolley says this is far from the best solution. Just as your child may know that monsters aren’t actually under their bed, they probably realize that the “ghost” they see isn’t physically real. Regardless, there are still powerful emotions associated with the experience.
As opposed to trying to invalidate the fear completely, Dr. Woolley instead proposes a softer method of soothing. If a child is scared of whatever spirit they saw, she recommends having them describe the figure in detail.
“If the ghost has a really scary feature, you can maybe try to soften that,” says Dr. Woolley. “So you say your ghost has really sharp teeth? Let's just imagine that all of your ghost’s teeth fell out.”
Dr. Woolley says that trying to frame scary stimuli in a less frightening way could help alleviate your child’s fears, and potentially help squash the spirits once and for all.