Childhood Schizophrenia

If you're like a lot of people, you may think schizophrenia is a mental health problem that affects adults. But it can also happen in children younger than 13, though it's extremely rare. Learn the warning signs so you can alert your child's doctor and get treatment that can help improve his symptoms.

Symptoms in Infants and Toddlers

If your child is still a baby or toddler, he may have warning signs of schizophrenia that are different from those in older children, teens, and adults.

The disorder affects how your baby develops. You may notice problems like:

  • Long periods of being inactive or listless
  • Floppy arms or legs
  • Delays in crawling, walking, or talking
  • Odd movements such as rocking or arm flapping
  • A limp or slumped posture

Keep in mind that some of these symptoms show up in children with other problems besides schizophrenia. And some happen in kids without any conditions. Only your child's doctor can figure out what's really going on. He may ask about your family’s history of psychiatric illnesses to help decide.

Symptoms in Children

When kids are older than infants and toddlers, the behavior changes of schizophrenia may happen over time or come on suddenly, as if out of nowhere. Your child may act withdrawn and clingy or start to talk about strange and disturbed ideas and fears.

As soon as you see symptoms of schizophrenia in your child, alert your doctor to the problem. It's important to get a diagnosis and start treatment before your youngster shows signs of a break from reality, called psychosis.

Some common symptoms of children with schizophrenia:

  • Can't tell the difference between reality and dreams, stories, TV shows, etc.
  • Intense fear about someone or something harming them
  • Seeing, hearing, or feeling things that are not real
  • Moody, extremely anxious, afraid
  • Has no emotional expressions when speaking
  • Agitated, confused behavior, followed by periods of sitting and staring
  • Acting like a much younger child

Some of these symptoms are common in kids who are developing normally. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns.

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Causes

Experts aren't sure of the exact causes of schizophrenia and why it starts in childhood for some and at an older age for others.

Genetics may play a role, since the disease sometimes happens in more than one family member. If someone in your family has schizophrenia, your child has a higher chance of getting it.

Diagnosis

A pediatric psychiatrist can diagnose schizophrenia in children. Because mental health symptoms in children are sometimes similar for different conditions, an accurate diagnosis can be a challenge. Sometimes it's a long journey though the health system to get a diagnosis for your child.

Often, other mental health pros besides a pediatric psychiatrist get involved to give your child a thorough physical exam, blood tests, a series of mental health tests, imaging tests of the brain, and other exams. An accurate diagnosis is key in helping doctors come up with a treatment plan that can help your child manage the disease.

Treatment

If your child gets a diagnosis of schizophrenia, he'll likely need treatment all his life. The ways to manage the disease are similar in adults and children, and include:

Medications. Your doctor may suggest one or more antipsychotics. These treatments are also sometimes called neuroleptics. They are used to manage delusions (beliefs in things that aren't true) and hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren't real). Speak with your child's doctor about side effects and other drugs your child may need to avoid while taking these medicines.

Psychotherapy. Mental health professionals who specialize in childhood schizophrenia may help your youngster manage his symptoms. You might also consider family therapy and support groups to help your child and others in the family understand the disease and find solutions to stressful situations.

Life skills training. Special classes can teach your child social skills and show him how to do his daily tasks. He can also get tips on how to overcome challenges in school.

If your child has severe symptoms or a mental health crisis, a stay in the hospital can be the quickest way to get symptoms under control in a safe place. Other options may include part-time hospital and home care.

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When childhood schizophrenia gets diagnosed and treated early, your child may be able to manage the disease as he grows into an adult. Health professionals will keep tabs on his condition and treatments throughout his life.

Though there is no cure for this disorder, children with schizophrenia can succeed at school, in their social lives, and as they grow older, at work.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on January 17, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

National Institute of Mental Health: "Schizophrenia."

Mayo Clinic: "Childhood schizophrenia."

Boston Children's Hospital: "Schizophrenia: Symptoms & Causes."

Children's National: "Pediatric Schizophrenia."

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