Childhood schizophrenia is almost identical to adults with the condition. The biggest difference is children who interpret reality in an abnormal manner run the risk of psychological development problems.
Schizophrenia is a disorder that affects the way an individual thinks (cognitive), behaves, and processes emotions. Due to these affects, some individuals experience hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thinking and conduct.
Since childhood schizophrenia is extremely uncommon, it can be difficult for medical professionals to diagnose. Often, this condition is misdiagnosed for more common mental illnesses that affect children, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ¹
However, if your child struggles with schizophrenia, it’s vital to find treatment as soon as possible. The earlier your child is treated, the better chance s/he has of overcoming symptoms.
Throughout this article, we’re going to teach you everything you need to know about childhood schizophrenia. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.
Symptoms of Childhood Schizophrenia
Childhood schizophrenia entails many of the same symptoms associated with adults who struggle with schizophrenia. These include complications in the way one thinks, behaves, and regulates emotions.
While symptoms and signs of schizophrenia vary from person to person, most people will experience: ²
- Disorganized speech
- Impaired functional ability
The majority of those with schizophrenia will develop symptoms in their mid- to late 20’s. However, in rare cases, some people will develop schizophrenia before the age of 18. In even rarer cases, some show signs younger than 13.
It can be difficult to tell if your child struggles with schizophrenia as symptoms are inconsistent. Sometimes, they occur for periods of time – usually worsening in moments. Other times, symptoms will always be present.
Signs and Symptoms of Early Schizophrenia
When it comes to childhood schizophrenia, the earliest signs and symptoms appear as developmental problems. These include:
- Abnormal motor conduct (i.e. rocking or arm flapping)
- Language delays
- Late or unusual crawling
- Late walking
As mentioned, childhood schizophrenia often goes misdiagnosed because these symptoms are associated with other conditions, such as developmental disorders. In order to garner a proper diagnosis, a medical professional will most likely rule out other mental health conditions first.
Signs and Symptoms in Teenagers
While signs and symptoms of schizophrenia in teenagers are extremely similar to adults, it’s also rare for people of this age group to struggle with the condition. Not to mention, signs of psychosis often go unnoticed by parents.
Due to these factors, a medical professional will need to rule out other mental disorders before concluding on schizophrenia.
Common signs and symptoms of schizophrenia in teenagers include: ³
- Difficulty sleeping
- Irritability or depressed moods
- Lack of motivation
- Lack of performance at school
- Substance use
- Unusual behavior
- Withdrawal from friends and family
Unlike adults, teens are less likely to experience delusions. However, they’re more likely to experience visual hallucinations.
Later Signs of Schizophrenia in Children
Most of the time, a child with schizophrenia won’t show signs of the condition until later in life. As your child ages, you may find the following traits within them:
- Delusions – False beliefs that aren’t based in reality. A difficult sign to pick up, but often includes the idea that you have exceptional ability (sometimes for fame, that other people are in love with you (when they’re not), that a major disaster is going to occur (when it isn’t). ⁴
- Disorganized and Unusual Motor Behavior – Can appear in multiple manners, such as unforeseeable agitation or childish inappropriateness. A person with schizophrenia will participate in conduct that has no goal, making tasks more difficult to complete.
- Disorganized Thoughts – An easier sign to pick up as it can appear in disorganized speech. This includes trouble communicating with others or answering particular questions (usually, answers will be completely unrelated).
- Hallucinations – Unlike delusions, hallucinations are when a person sees and/or hears things that aren’t really there. This can be another difficult sign to pick up as people with schizophrenia often perceive these hallucinations as real. Most commonly, this involves hearing voices. ⁵
- Negative Symptoms – The inability to function normally. Negative symptoms appear differently in everyone. Some may not take care of their hygiene while others may show a lack of emotion when necessary. Individuals may also not engage in activities that once interested them. ⁶
When to Seek Medical Attention
Since it’s so difficult to identify the signs and symptoms of schizophrenia in children, it’s understandable if your child goes without medical attention for some time. However, there ways to identify whether or not your child needs to see a medical professional.
To start, if other people mention your child’s behavior – more particularly, teachers and school staff – it may be worth considering.
Other times you should seek medical attention include:
- When development is delayed compared to siblings and/or peers
- When your child is unable to meet standard expectations (i.e. bathing, dressing)
- When your child loses interest in socializing with friends and family
- When your child’s academic performance starts to slip
- When your child eats irregularly
- When your child reveals excessive suspicion in others
- When your child is unable to regulate emotions or reveals inappropriate emotions for certain situations
- When your child believes dream or television is reality
- When your child develops unusual ideas and/or fears
- When your child shows signs of unusual speech and/or behavior
- When your child has violent/aggressive conduct
- When your child develops suicidal ideation
Again, these don’t necessarily indicate your child has schizophrenia. They may be struggling with another disorder that has similar signs. This is why it’s important to contact a mental health professional and receive an official diagnosis
What Causes Childhood Schizophrenia?
It’s currently unknown what causes schizophrenia – both in children and adults. Many researchers believe that is has to do with a combination of genetics, development of brain chemistry, and environmental factors. ⁷
It’s also unclear why schizophrenia develops early in life for some and later for others. However, environmental factors may play a significant role in this.
Researchers have observed that those with schizophrenia usually have an imbalance in certain neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and glutamate. Through neuroimaging, it’s also been discovered that those who struggle with schizophrenia have different brain structure and central nervous system (CNS) activity than those without it. ⁸
Due to the lack of research, there are no conclusions as to what causes schizophrenia. However, with the information we have, we can identify individuals who are more at risk of developing the condition than others.
Risk Factors of Childhood Schizophrenia
If you are lead to believe your child has developed schizophrenia, you’ll want to keep in mind the following risk factors (sometimes referred to as “triggers”): ⁹
- Family history of schizophrenia
- Father is of an older age
- Increased immune system activity (i.e. from inflammation)
- Pregnancy and birth complications (i.e. malnutrition, exposure to toxins, etc.)
- Use of drugs during teenage years (more particularly, psychoactive drugs like cannabis or LSD)
Potential Complications of Childhood Schizoprenia
When schizophrenia’s left untreated it can develop into severe behavioral, emotional, and health complications. Some of these that happen in childhood or later in life include:
- Aggressive behavior
- Anxiety disorders (i.e. panic disorder or social anxiety disorder)
- Being victimized
- Depression (major depressive disorder)
- Family conflicts
- Inability to live independently
- Legal and financial complications (i.e. homelessness)
- Medical problems
- Social isolation
- Substance abuse disorder
- Suicidal ideation
While schizophrenia is a tough condition to manage, early recognition and treatment can help to make symptoms less severe. Not to mention, they can curb psychotic episodes.
If you believe your child is struggling with schizophrenia, we suggest consulting a medical professional before coming to conclusions.
Still have questions concerning childhood schizophrenia?
We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any further knowledge to share – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.
¹ Current Psychiatry Reports (HHS Public Access): Childhood-Onset Schizophrenia: The Challenge of Diagnosis
² National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Schizophrenia
³ Teen Mental Health: Schizophrenia
⁴ Health information for Western Australians: Delusions
⁵ Industrial Psychiatry Journal (Medknow Publications): Hallucinations: Clinical aspects and management
⁶ Harvard Health Publishing (Harvard Medical School): The negative symptoms of schizophrenia
⁷ The Department of Health (Australian Government): What causes schizophrenia?
⁸ UC San Diego Health: Scientists Discover Neurochemical Imbalance in Schizophrenia
⁹ Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews (HHS Public Access): A review of vulnerability and risks for schizophrenia