Childhood schizophrenia is an uncommon but severe mental disorder in which children interpret reality abnormally. Schizophrenia involves a range of problems with thinking (cognitive), behavior or emotions. It may result in some combination of hallucinations, delusions, and extremely disordered thinking and behavior that impairs your child's ability to function.
Childhood schizophrenia is essentially the same as schizophrenia in adults, but it occurs early in life and has a profound impact on a child's behavior and development. With childhood schizophrenia, the early age of onset presents special challenges for diagnosis, treatment, education, and emotional and social development.
Schizophrenia is a chronic condition that requires lifelong treatment. Identifying and starting treatment for childhood schizophrenia as early as possible may significantly improve your child's long-term outcome.
Schizophrenia involves a range of problems with thinking, behavior or emotions. Signs and symptoms may vary, but usually involve delusions, hallucinations or disorganized speech, and reflect an impaired ability to function. The effect can be disabling.
Schizophrenia symptoms generally start in the mid- to late 20s. It's uncommon for children to be diagnosed with schizophrenia. Early-onset schizophrenia occurs before age 18. Very early-onset schizophrenia in children younger than age 13 is extremely rare.
Symptoms can vary in type and severity over time, with periods of worsening and remission of symptoms. Some symptoms may always be present. Schizophrenia can be difficult to recognize in the early phases.
The earliest indications of childhood schizophrenia may include developmental problems, such as:
Some of these signs and symptoms are also common in children with pervasive developmental disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder. So ruling out these developmental disorders is one of the first steps in diagnosis.
Schizophrenia symptoms in teenagers are similar to those in adults, but the condition may be more difficult to recognize in this age group. This may be in part because some of the early symptoms of schizophrenia in teenagers are common for typical development during teen years, such as:
Compared with schizophrenia symptoms in adults, teens may be:
As children with schizophrenia age, more typical signs and symptoms of the disorder begin to appear. Signs and symptoms may include:
When childhood schizophrenia begins early in life, symptoms may build up gradually. The early signs and symptoms may be so vague that you can't recognize what's wrong, or you may attribute them to a developmental phase.
As time goes on, symptoms may become more severe and more noticeable. Eventually, your child may develop the symptoms of psychosis, including hallucinations, delusions and difficulty organizing thoughts. As thoughts become more disorganized, there's often a "break from reality" (psychosis) frequently requiring hospitalization and treatment with medication.
When to see a doctor
It can be difficult to know how to handle vague behavioral changes in your child. You may be afraid of rushing to conclusions that label your child with a mental illness. Your child's teacher or other school staff may alert you to changes in your child's behavior.
Seek medical advice if your child:
These general signs and symptoms don't necessarily mean your child has childhood schizophrenia. These could indicate a phase, another mental health disorder such as depression or an anxiety disorder, or a medical condition. Seek medical care as soon as possible if you have concerns about your child's behavior or development.
Suicidal thoughts and behavior are common among people with schizophrenia. If you have a child or teen who is in danger of attempting suicide or has made a suicide attempt, make sure someone stays with him or her. Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. Or if you think you can do so safely, take your child to the nearest hospital emergency room.
It's not known what causes childhood schizophrenia, but it's thought that it develops in the same way as adult schizophrenia does. Researchers believe that a combination of genetics, brain chemistry and environment contributes to development of the disorder. It's not clear why schizophrenia starts so early in life for some and not for others.
Problems with certain naturally occurring brain chemicals, including neurotransmitters called dopamine and glutamate, may contribute to schizophrenia. Neuroimaging studies show differences in the brain structure and central nervous system of people with schizophrenia. While researchers aren't certain about the significance of these changes, they indicate that schizophrenia is a brain disease.
Diagnosis of childhood schizophrenia involves ruling out other mental health disorders and determining that symptoms aren't due to substance abuse, medication or a medical condition. The process of diagnosis may involve:
The path to diagnosing childhood schizophrenia can sometimes be long and challenging. In part, this is because other conditions, such as depression or bipolar disorder, can have similar symptoms.
A child psychiatrist may want to monitor your child's behaviors, perceptions and thinking patterns for six months or more. As thinking and behavior patterns and signs and symptoms become clearer over time, a diagnosis of schizophrenia may be made.
In some cases, a psychiatrist may recommend starting medications before an official diagnosis is made. This is especially important for symptoms of aggression or self-injury. Some medications can help limit these types of behavior and restore a sense of normalcy.
Left untreated, childhood schizophrenia can result in severe emotional, behavioral and health problems. Complications associated with schizophrenia may occur in childhood or later, such as:
Early identification and treatment may help get symptoms of childhood schizophrenia under control before serious complications develop. Early treatment is also crucial in helping limit psychotic episodes, which can be extremely frightening to a child and his or her parents. Ongoing treatment can help improve your child's long-term outlook.
Although childhood schizophrenia requires professional treatment, it's critical to be an active participant in your child's care. Here are ways to get the most out of the treatment plan.
Coping with childhood schizophrenia can be challenging. Medications can have unwanted side effects, and you, your child and your whole family may feel angry or resentful about having to manage a condition that requires lifelong treatment. To help cope with childhood schizophrenia:
Although the precise cause of schizophrenia isn't known, certain factors seem to increase the risk of developing or triggering schizophrenia, including: