As a kid, were you more empathetic and aware of your emotions than others? Did you like music and art – even if your potential in those areas was never fully reached? Were you a free and independent thinker, an outsider, sometimes feeling hemmed in by external authority? If so, some may have labeled you as an “indigo child” – not, as your parents and teachers might have thought, a little terror who ought to be in detention four days a week, but nothing less than the next stage of humanity.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? But what exactly is an indigo child? How do you know if you are one? And – most importantly of all – isn’t this all just some pseudoscientific hokum designed to make ableist parents deny or feel better about their children’s neurological disorders?
What is an “indigo child”?
According to Nancy Ann Tappe, the self-proclaimed “synesthete” (more on that later) who invented the concept, “indigo children” are a group of "highly evolved" individuals, all of whom share certain psychological traits that mark them as existing outside – maybe even above – the norm.
“Signs a child may be ‘indigo’ include strong intuition, creativity, also a headstrong, passionate, and questioning character,” wrote James Taylor, recounting his own experiences with the term in an article for Glasgow University Magazine last year.
So far so standard – but for some believers in the concept, things didn’t stop there. Indigo children “might also be a bit psychic,” Taylor explained. “In one account I read, a child diagnosed as ‘indigo’ described themselves as ‘an emperor from another planet’ who had fallen into his mother’s womb by accident; another girl casually spoke to gnomes.”
To be clear, this isn’t one of those things like the hygiene hypothesis, where legitimate (albeit ultimately misguided) scientific thought got warped by overzealous and undereducated parents and media. The idea that “indigo children” were not just unique, but semi-magical, was encouraged by some of the main original proponents of the concept.
“To me these children are the answers to the prayers we all have for peace,” Doreen Virtue told the New York Times back in 2006, when the “indigo children” phenomenon was around the height of its fame. Now a born-again Christian who denounces all her previous work as heretical, Virtue had previously been a psychotherapist for adolescents, but by the early aughts, she was one of the lead authorities on indigo children – in fact, she had literally written the book on the phenomenon, penning The Care and Feeding of Indigo Children in 2001.
According to Virtue, an indigo child exhibits most or all of a long list of characteristics, including being strong willed; born in 1978 or later; headstrong and independent – “even if they're constantly asking you for money,” Virtue noted; creative; prone to addictions; easily bored; craving friendships, even being able to bond with animals or plants; who sometimes finds it difficult to go to sleep, and may have a history of seeing “angels” or “deceased people,” she wrote.
Indigos are nothing if not hard to pin down. They can be overly aggressive, but also fragile and introverted, Virtue wrote; they can have either low self-esteem or lean towards delusions of grandeur. They can show signs of depression, but also know themselves to be important for the future of the world – and if you’ve ever taken them to a traditional counselor, there’s a fair chance you’ll have heard the letters “ADHD” floating around at some point.
Indigos are "vigilant about cleaning the earth of social ills and corruption, and increasing integrity,” Virtue said. “Other generations tried, but then they became apathetic. This generation won't, unless we drug them into submission with Ritalin.”
Isn’t that just ADHD/autism/mental illness/being a kid?
Ah – you noticed that too, huh?
The turn of the century was something of a golden age for medical paranoia – even notwithstanding today’s ivermectin rope worms and rampant vaccine misinformation. This was the era that gave us “vaccines cause autism”: the baseless conspiracy theory that even today is the cause of countless preventable child deaths; it was the time when thousands of medical professionals were driven to compose the Durban Declaration to tell people that, yes, actually, HIV does cause AIDS, please stop saying it doesn’t; and we weren’t far off from the dawn of the incredibly bleak “drink bleach” school of pediatric medicine.
And in tiny pill bottles across the world, something else was happening: a massive change in the diagnosis and treatment of psychological and neurological disorders. Between 1996 and 2008, the number of kids being prescribed stimulants for ADHD increased by nearly 50 percent, as did the rates of antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications.
There were many reasons for that, not least of which was improved diagnosis and more easily available drugs – a number of patents for mental health treatments happened to run out in the early 2000s, making them suddenly a hell of a lot cheaper for those who needed them.
With this improved diagnosis and treatment came a slew of panicky commentary, disturbed by what people saw as the overmedicalization of society. Kids didn’t have some condition they needed drugging out of, people said – that’s just called “being a kid”. After all – you wouldn’t medicate Bart Simpson, would you?
Viewed through this lens, “indigo children” can be seen as just another reaction against the idea that your special little guy or gal could be anything less than perfect. Indeed, that’s precisely what some experts have cautioned: speaking to How Stuff Works recently, clinical psychologist Monica Vermani said she saw “red flag[s]” in the concept.
Parents who buy into the “indigo child” idea “might view their child's problematic symptoms and behaviors – like inattention, and disruptive or defiant behaviors – through the lens of their indigo child status or identity,” Vermani said – and that, she added, “could lead them to dismiss, resist, or delay addressing problems through traditional channels of proper diagnosis and treatment.”
How do I know if I’m an indigo child?
With so many signature traits, it seems like it would be no trouble at all to figure out if you – or your little one – were one of these extra-evolved humans. But here’s the thing: when we reeled off that list at the beginning, did you think we were describing you? Or just, you know… any child?
That’s another big criticism leveled at those who promote the “indigo child” concept: the so-called “indigo” characteristics are so broad, and so generalizable, as to apply to just about anybody. It’s called the Barnum effect, after Phineas Taylor Barnum, the showman and Wolverine lookalike who is said to have coined the phrase “a sucker is born every minute” – which might tip you off to where we’re going with this.
Put simply, the Barnum effect is what happens when you hear a description or statement that sounds unbelievably accurate to your personal experience – not realizing that in fact, it applies to just about anybody. It’s how psychics and mediums make their livelihood; it’s why astrology is still way more popular than you might think; and according to indigo skeptics, it’s why so many people out there feel justified in their indigo diagnosis.
“According to Tober and Carroll [two of the most famous indigo proponents], indigo children may function poorly in conventional schools due to the child's rejection of authority, their being smarter or more spiritually mature than their teachers, and their lack of response to guilt-, fear- or manipulation-based discipline,” notes a 2019 Edinburgh Skeptics article.
“However, child psychologists point out that no evidence of any of these specialties has been revealed and many of these attributes could apply – in varying degrees – to all children,” they continue. “When you Google the term, there are lots of websites to help you diagnose your child. They all contain ludicrous Barnum Statements such as ‘You Feel Entitled’ or ‘You Question Authority’ or even ‘You Are Destined To Be Here’.”
So, perhaps a personality test is out of the question – but luckily, there’s one trait that every indigo child has, no matter how strongly they identify with all the other supposed characteristics.
They all, without exception, have a blue aura.
Ok, there may have been some of you reading up to this point who thought we were being needlessly harsh. So allow us to quash those misgivings: the “indigo child” concept relies entirely on one woman’s assertion that she could see mystical colors emanating around kids’ bodies.
Remember how Nancy Ann Tappe called herself a “synesthete”? It was this aura-sensing – and not the actual meaning of synesthesia, which is much cooler on account of actually being proven to exist – that she was using the word to describe. Back in the late 60s, she started claiming to see more and more children who had an indigo aura – hence the name.
By the way, indigo children aren’t the only people to be so diagnosed. There are also “crystal children”, named for their supposedly crystal-colored (and conveniently invisible to the human eye) auras – but this concept, even more than that of indigo children, appears to be a reaction against diagnoses of autism. Meanwhile “rainbow children”, the gen z of the trio, are said to have rainbow auras – and if their parents are to be believed, they’re all basically Jean Grey levels of psychic.
Auras. So, it’s nonsense, then?
Well, yes. Unless science can prove the objective existence of personality-based auras, it’s going to be very hard for anybody to provide a rational defense of the entire concept of “indigo children.”
Even if everybody on the planet really is surrounded by a giant mood ring, you’d still have to counter the fact that, well, autism and ADHD exist. Both of them, too, have much more precise definitions than that of the “indigo child” diagnosis, which as we’ve seen can apply to just about any kid at some point in their life.
Look, we’re not saying your kid’s not special – but they’re probably not “next level of humanity” special. It’s way more likely they have a neurological condition (which is fine, by the way, being neurodivergent is hardly a fate worse than death!) or even just that they’re a bit imaginative and weird.
“All of us would prefer not to have our kids labeled with a psychiatric disorder, but in this case it's a sham diagnosis,” psychiatrist Russell Barkley told the New York Times. “There's no science behind it. There are no studies.”
All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.