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By Jim B. Tucker, MD
A little boy named Joey talked a number of times about how his “other mother” had died in a car accident. One night at dinner when he was almost four years old, he stood up in his chair and appeared pale as he looked intently at his mother and said, “You are not my family—my family is dead.” Joey cried quietly for a minute as a tear rolled down his cheek, then sat back down and continued with his meal. His parents—and their dinner guest—sat stunned.
At the University of Virginia Division of Perceptual Studies, we have investigated over 2,500 cases in which young children reported memories of past lives. Parents frequently ask us for advice on how to handle their children’s statements. While each case has individual differences, we can offer some general guidance that may be helpful.
First, it is important to know that these statements do not, by themselves, indicate mental illness. We have talked with many families in which a child claimed to remember another set of parents, another home, or a previous death, and the children rarely show mental health problems. These statements are generally made by children whose development appears to otherwise be just like that of their peers. They can occur in families with a belief in reincarnation or in families where the idea of reincarnation had never been considered before the child began making the statements.
When children talk about a past life, parents are sometimes unsure how to respond. We recommend that parents be open to what their children are reporting. Some of the children show a lot of emotional intensity regarding these issues, and parents should be respectful in listening just as they are with other subjects that their children bring up.
When a child talks about a past life, we suggest that parents avoid asking a lot of pointed questions. This could be upsetting to the child and, more importantly from our standpoint, could lead the child to make up answers to the questions. It would then be difficult or impossible to separate memories from fantasy. We do think it is fine to ask general, open-ended questions such as, “Do you remember anything else?” and it is certainly fine to empathize with a child’s statements (“That must have been scary” when, for instance, a child describes a fatal accident).
We encourage parents to write down any statements about a past life that their children make. This is particularly important in cases where the children give enough information so that identifying a deceased individual that they are describing might be possible. In such a situation, having the statements recorded ahead of time would be critical in providing the best evidence that the child actually had experienced memories from a previous life.
At the same time, parents should not become so focused on the statements that they and their children lose sight of the fact that the current life is what is most important now. If children persist in saying they want their old family or old home, it might be helpful to explain that while they may have had another family in a previous life, their current family is the one they have for this life. Parents should acknowledge and value what their children have told them while making clear that the past life is truly in the past. We do not recommend that children undergo past-life regression hypnosis.
Parents are sometimes more upset by the statements than their child is. Hearing a child describe the experience of dying in a painful or difficult way can be hard, but both parent and child can know that the child is safe now in this life. Some parents may be comforted to know that the vast majority of these children stop talking about a previous life by the time they are five to seven years old. This is the age at which children become involved with school and also the age at which they lose their memories of early childhood, and the talk about a past life fades along with those memories. Very rarely, the memories will persist into adolescence or adulthood, though with much less intensity than during the younger years. In many cases, however, as children get older they do not even remember that they ever talked about a past life.
Overall, parents often find children’s claims to remember previous lives more remarkable than do the children, for whom the apparent memories are simply part of their experience of life. The children then move on from the memories to lead typical childhoods.