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Schizophrenia in Children

What is schizophrenia in children?

Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness. It is a long-lasting and disabling problem of the brain. A child with this disorder has unusual behavior and strange feelings. He or she may suddenly start to have psychotic symptoms. Psychotic means having strange ideas, thoughts, or feelings that are not based in reality.

Schizophrenia is not often found in children younger than age 12. It is also hard to spot in the early stages. Often, the psychotic symptoms will start in the middle to late teen years. Slightly more boys develop it in childhood. But by the teen years it affects both boys and girls equally.

What causes schizophrenia in a child?

Schizophrenia has no single cause. A combination of genes from both parents plays a role. So do unknown environmental factors. Experts believe that a child has to inherit a chemical imbalance in the brain to develop it.

Which children are at risk for schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia tends to run in families. A child who has a family member with the disorder has a greater chance of developing it.

What are the symptoms of schizophrenia in a child?

Behavior changes may occur slowly, over time. Or they may start suddenly. The child may slowly become more shy and withdrawn. He or she may start to talk about odd ideas or fears and start to cling more to parents.

Each child’s symptoms may vary. Early warning signs are:

  • Trouble telling dreams from reality (distorted view of reality)
  • Confused thinking, such as confusing TV with reality
  • Detailed and bizarre thoughts and ideas
  • Fear or belief that someone or something is going to harm him or her
  • Seeing, hearing, or feeling things that are not real, such as hearing voices (hallucinations)
  • Ideas that seem real but are not based in reality (delusions)
  • Extreme moodiness
  • Lots of anxiety or fear
  • Lack of emotional expression when speaking
  • Trouble doing schoolwork or a drop in levels of school success
  • Social withdrawal, such as having problems making and keeping friends
  • Sudden agitation and confusion
  • Disorganized behavior, such as doing private things in public. Or catatonic behavior, such as sitting and staring, as if the child can’t move.
  • Odd behaviors, such as an older child acting like he or she is much younger

Children with schizophrenia have the same symptoms as adults with the condition. But more children hear voices. Children also don’t tend to have delusions or formal thought problems until they are in their teens or older.

These symptoms may look like other health problems. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is schizophrenia diagnosed in a child?

A child with symptoms of schizophrenia needs a mental health evaluation. A child psychiatrist or other qualified mental health expert can diagnose schizophrenia in children and teens. He or she does a mental health evaluation to figure out how best to treat the child.

How is schizophrenia treated in a child?

Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

Schizophrenia is a major mental illness. Treatment is complex. A child often needs a combination of therapies to meet the specific needs. Treatment is aimed at easing symptoms. It may include the following.

Medicines

The doses and types of medicines may need to be adjusted from time to time so they can keep working well. Your child may be given:

  • Medicines to help reduce delusions and hallucinations (antipsychotics). This special class of medicines can reduce symptoms or reduce how severe the symptoms are. But they don’t cure schizophrenia.
  • Mood stabilizing medicines. Examples are lithium and valproic acid, especially in the early stages of the illness.

Other treatment

  • Individual and family therapy. This may include supportive, thinking, and behavioral therapy.
  • Specialized educational or structured activity programs. These may include social skills training, vocational training, and speech and language therapy.
  • Self-help and support groups. These can help the child learn ways to cope with the disorder and also work on social skills.

How can I help prevent schizophrenia in my child?

Experts don’t know how to prevent schizophrenia. But early diagnosis and treatment can improve a child’s quality of life. Treatment works best when early symptoms are dealt with quickly.

How can I help my child live with schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that will require your support, patience, and attention. You are your child’s best advocate. Here are things you can do to help:

  • Keep all appointments with your child’s healthcare provider. Talk with your child’s provider about referring your child to a psychiatrist with experience evaluating and treating children with schizophrenia.
  • Talk with your child’s healthcare provider about other providers who will be involved in your child’s care. Your child may get care from a team that may include experts like psychiatrists, counselors, therapists, psychologists, and social workers. Your child’s care team will depend on his or her needs and how serious the schizophrenia is.
  • Tell others about your child’s schizophrenia. Work with your child’s healthcare provider and school to develop a treatment plan.
  • Take care of yourself. Schizophrenia is a difficult disease, and you may feel overwhelmed or stressed out. Being in touch with other parents who have a child with schizophrenia may be helpful. Talk with your child’s healthcare provider about a support group for caregivers of children with schizophrenia or seek counseling.
  • Take all symptoms of depression and suicide very seriously. Seek treatment right away. Suicide is a health emergency.

When should I call my child’s healthcare provider?

Call your healthcare provider right away if your child:

  • Feels extreme depression, fear, anxiety, or anger toward him or herself or others
  • Feels out of control
  • Hears voices that others don’t hear
  • Sees things that others don’t see
  • Can’t sleep or eat for 3 days in a row
  • Shows behavior that concerns friends, family, or teachers, and others express concern about this behavior and ask you to seek help

Schizophrenia may increase a child’s risk for suicidal thinking. 

Call 911 if your child has suicidal thoughts, a suicide plan, and the means to carry out the plan.

Key points about schizophrenia in children

  • Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness.
  • A child with this disorder has unusual behavior and strange feelings. He or she may have delusions or hallucinations.
  • Symptoms can develop slowly over time or start quickly.
  • A mental health expert can diagnose schizophrenia. Ask for a referral to a psychiatrist with experience evaluating and treating children with schizophrenia.
  • Treatment can include a combination of medicine, therapy, and special programs.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.
Online Medical Reviewer: Ballas, Paul, DO
Online Medical Reviewer: Nelson, Gail A, MS, APRN, BC
Online Medical Reviewer: Watson, L Renee, MSN, RN
Date Last Reviewed: 10/1/2016
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