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Near Death Experiences

Children's Near-Death Experiences

Implications for Parents, Schools, and Health Care Professionals

From a talk given at University of North Texas, March 7, 2003

Research shows that some 33-60% of children who undergo cardiac arrest have a near-death experience. Like adult NDEs, these childhood NDEs have profound implications for the experiencers. Today, I will discuss the types of NDEs that children experience, what changes you might expect in a child, the natural history of adjustment to changes brought on by a NDE, and how you might be of assistance to children who have had NDEs. I will also talk about the relationship between children with NDEs and HSC (highly sensitive children).

When pediatrician, Dr. Melvin Morse, first studied NDEs in children who had been revived and brought into the hospital through Operation Airlift Northwest, he discovered that 40% of the children who had survived a cardiac arrest reported a NDE during the event. Dr. Morse interviewed children from records over a ten-year period. Hence, some of the children had recently undergone a NDE whereas other children had undergone a NDE many years in the past. The overall recollection of NDEs was approximately 40%. PMH Atwater, who has extensively interviewed childhood NDErs over the past 20 years, feels that the incidence of NDEs in cardiac arrest in children is closer to 70%. No large-scale prospective studies have been done yet. Suffice it to say, that you probably know children who have had NDEs if you know any children who have undergone cardiac arrests (or had extremely difficult births.)

According to Atwater, there are four types of NDEs that may occur in children. The first type, the "Initial Experience," has few of the elements of the classic NDE. The children have a feeling of profound peace whether it is a welcome darkness or a gentle light. It is their entrance into the world of other realities. 76% of childhood NDErs have this type of experience. The second type, the "Pleasant and/or Heaven-like Experience" is encountered by 19% of childhood NDErs. In this type, children encounter friendly environments, family members, and/or helpful guides. They feel validated and loved and reassured that there is a purpose to life. The third type is found in only 3% of childhood NDEs. This type of experience, "the Unpleasant or Hell-like Experience," has frightening elements that seem to represent repressed fears and guilt. It may involve an unpleasant life review or a frightening void. The fourth type is found in only 2% of childhood NDEs. This "Transcendent" type reveals other dimensions and truths in some detail. The exact details are not always remembered after the NDE. Of note, in Atwater's research, the percentages of these four types of experiences vary widely between children and adults. She feels that people receive the type of experience that will be of most value to them. For further discussion of these types, please refer to her book, Children of the New Millennium.

What changes might you see in a child who has had a NDE? Children may talk about their NDE or they may withdraw and seem to be "in a world of their own." The earlier that the NDE occurs in their lives, the more they live from what they understood in their NDE, but feel puzzled by what seems to pass for reality around them. It is not at all uncommon for them to continue communication with spirits after returning from a NDE. This may appear as an imaginary playmate, but it is also quite likely that these spirits will be described as angels. Children may appear to be much older than their actual chronological age. They may have interests in the meaning of life and in spirituality that may seem strange in one so young. They often develop a taste for books that are generally read by much older people, especially books about spirituality and philosophy. These same children may have difficulty relating to people their own age because of their more mature interests. They may also have difficulty relating because of the extreme sensitivity that develops as a result of the NDE. Most people who experience a NDE notice that they are much more sensitive to other people upon their return. They are intuitive and can often sense and even feel exactly what the other person is feeling. Hence, the childhood NDEr has a very difficult time on the playground when a fellow student is being teased. These NDErs recognize that the majority of the children on the playground do not share their discomfort and they feel quite isolated from the group. NDErs may seem to be more distant after a NDE. They will behave lovingly toward strangers and animals, but they may not seem as attached to their parents and siblings as they did before the NDE. This is a natural outcome of experiencing universal love and should not be taken personally by family members. These children may begin to bring in stray animals and concern themselves about world conditions. Violent programs and the news may be overwhelming to them. According to Atwater, children may undergo a "Brain Shift" and have a jump in intelligence, especially if their NDE occurs in the first few months of life or at 3-5 years of age. Many of these children will register at genius level on intelligence tests. Childhood NDErs often develop food and medicine sensitivities as well. They may be allergic to them or simply have more side effects or require lower doses of medications. This is the rule rather than the exception in terms of medications. If children had "Unpleasant NDEs," they may have difficulty falling asleep because they consciously or unconsciously fear returning to the NDE.

Atwater in Children of the New Millenniumhas delineated the natural history of adjustment after a NDE. She has noted that Phase One occurs for the first three years after the NDE. During that time period, children are usually involved in their inner world. They may appear withdrawn as they encounter the changes in themselves as described above. They are trying to integrate the experience internally. I would also point out that many children have had significant physical problems as a result of the illness or trauma that initiated the cardiac arrest in the first place. Those physical problems often require rehabilitation and adjustment as well. During the next four years, Phase Two, they begin to realign themselves with their families and seek opportunities for service in the world. About 1/3 of childhood NDErs will turn to alcohol during this phase because of the discrepancy between the world they envision and the one they encounter. Phase Three occurs from seven to 12-15 years after the NDE. During this phase, they begin to balance what they see in the world and what they feel internally. At this time, they develop self-confidence and a sense of spiritual and moral values so that they can enter the world in a solid way. While Phase Three seems to be a time of great gain, there comes a time in Phase Four when childhood NDErs lose heart and begin to have swings in their moods and hormones. They often become depressed during this phase; (most of the 21% of childhood NDErs who attempted suicide did so during this phase.) As this phase ends, the NDEr deeply integrates the experience and finds that they have the self-confidence to live in the world from their own unique perspective. It is helpful to keep these approximate phases in mind when you encounter a child who has had a NDE.

What can you do to help the child who has had a NDE? First, be alert to the fact that they may well have had a NDE if they underwent a cardiac arrest. Ask them open-ended questions in a gentle fashion. Don't assume anything, but let them lead the way. Second, be aware of the changes that children often experience after a NDE. By anticipating these changes and looking for them, you can be truly supportive of the child.

In addition to these general approaches, there are also some useful specific approaches in various settings. In the family setting, read about NDEs yourself so that you can provide your child with factual information. Allow the child plenty of time to process the experience. They may need more time to be in their room to be alone, to relax, and to read books. Allow them to talk about the experience as much as they want to, but don't press them for details. Support them as they maneuver in the world, trying to blend what they have learned in the NDE with what they see in the world. If possible, introduce them to other people who have had NDEs. Seek out an IANDS group in your community both for yourself and for your child. (See for a list of "Friends of IANDS" groups throughout the country.) Be alert to symptoms of depression, alcohol or drug abuse, and/or prolonged withdrawal from routine social activities. If you become concerned, seek out a counselor who is well versed in NDEs and has a transpersonal approach to counseling. When your child is ill, remember that they may have allergies and may need lower doses of medication than the average child does.

As a teacher, the most helpful thing that you can do is familiarize yourself with the NDE literature. I especially recommend books by Dr. Melvin Morse and PMH Atwater as introductions to be world of childhood NDErs. Childhood NDErs will benefit from your objective information. In the classroom, understand that a childhood NDEr has a lot of input, both external and internal. They often approach information at a much more mature level than does the typical child of their age. They may be highly intelligent with a strong interest in the moral and spiritual implications of what they are learning. They may well need support as they interact with other children, as they are so sensitive. The rough-and-tumble world of the playground may be overwhelming. Their newfound psychic abilities may be unwelcome. Your compassion will go a long way toward helping them to cope.

Dr. Bruce Greyson is the psychiatrist who has worked most with people of all ages with NDEs. In a talk given at the IANDS national conference in Jan. 2003, Dr. Greyson discussed several ways that counselors can assist people with NDEs. In addition to the advice to families and teachers, here are some other ways to help: art and/or music therapy may be used to get to feelings that words simply can't express; hypnotherapy may be used to recall NDEs, especially those that occurred at a very young age; children may need to discuss conflicts over their decision to return to their bodies; children need a safe place to talk about their other realities; keeping a focus on the "here and now" will encourage a smooth adjustment; a NDE in a family member often changes the family dynamics and values-family counseling may be of benefit.

Many of you are familiar with the HSC (the highly sensitive child.) According to Dr. Elaine Aron, some 15-20% of the population is genetically highly sensitive. These children are sensitive to changes in the environment. They perform better in the classroom if changes are announced ahead of time, if there is not too much noise or conflicting input in the classroom, and if they can integrate into the classroom at their own pace. As I read about that type of child, I was struck with the similarities between those children and those who have had NDEs. Both types of children will benefit from a quiet classroom, perhaps even one that incorporates some form of meditation at points throughout the day. They are a great addition to the classroom with their insightful comments and sensitivity to nuances.

Suggested Reading

Aron, Elaine N., Ph.D. The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping our Children Thrive when the World Overwhelms Them. New York: Broadway Books, 2002.

Atwater, PMH, Lh.D. Children of the New Millennium: Children's Near-Death Experiences and the Evolution of Humankind. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999. Soon to be re-published as Children's Near-Death Experiences and the Evolution of Humankind.

Atwater, PMH, Lh.D. Brain Shift/Spirit Shift Model. Self-published. Available at

Greyson, Bruce, M.D. Varieties of Anomalous Experiences: Examining the Scientific Evidence, edited by Etzel Cardena, Steven J. Lynn, and Stanley Krippner. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Assn., 2000.

Morse, Melvin, M.D. with Paul Perry. Closer to the Light: Learning from the Near-Death Experiences of Children. New York: Villard Books, 1990.


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