Why Kids Always Claim To See "Ghosts"

photographed by Eylul Aslan.
Children: they're the future. They light up our lives, but they can also be so, so creepy when they want to be. Anyone who's parented, babysat, or just hung out with kid likely has a story about them claiming to see a ghost, if not some other insidious entity. It's always creepy when this happens — and it's hard not to wonder if the kid really is channeling some long-deceased spirit or, at the very least, seeing things that you can't.
According to Aleta G. Angelosante, PhD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at NYU Langone, there's probably a perfectly normal, of-this-world explanation for the seemingly creepy kids in our lives.
For starters, Dr. Angelosante says kids tend to come up with spooky stories when Halloween is coming up, just because they're seeing more scary things in the shows they watch and the stories they hear. But, in general, she says this happens because kids have a harder time discerning what's real and what isn't than, say, adults. "Children are hard-wired to learn through imaginative and pretend play, and therefore they can slip between reality and fantasy much more easily than adults," Dr. Angelosante explains.
There's also the matter of how kids actually process what they see. Dr. Angelosante says that our skills of perception develop throughout early childhood, so if a small child sees something out of the corner of their eye, there's a chance that they'll misinterpret what that thing really is. And that's where their imaginations really come into play. "While an adult might dismiss something they see quickly out of the corner of their eye as “nothing” or have a reality-based explanation, children might insist they saw a ghost or a fairy or some other creature," Dr. Angelosante says.
So, the next time your child, "nibling," or little neighbor runs up to you with a story about the monster in their closet, there's a chance that they just saw a shadow or hanging clothes, and processed those images as something strange to them. In these cases, Dr. Angelosante recommends validating their concerns, while helping them better understand the boundaries between reality and fantasy. In fact, explaining the reality of the situation may ultimately help decrease their fears, she says.
But, Dr. Angelosante adds, the child might be telling you this story for a very particular reason. "Attention is the currency of childhood," she says. "If a young child states they have seen something supernatural [and] gets a great deal of attention for that statement, they are much more likely to make such a statement again in the future." Maybe you're hearing about the monster in their closet right before they have to go to bed — and asking you to check delays bedtime and lets them stay up that much longer.
If you think this is actually the case, don't dwell on the kid's ghost story for too long. Try responding with a brief "uh-huh," then ask them about something else, Dr. Angelosante says. She adds that you can totally play along and perform regular "monster checks" if you want, but after the kid reaches a certain age you'll be better off cutting to the chase and reminding them that monsters aren't real.
Of course, another explanation is that your kid really is in touch with the other side. See, I told you kids could be creepy.

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