Published On: June 29, 2022
Reviewed On: June 29, 2022
Updated On: July 17, 2023
It’s estimated that approximately 1 in 10,000 children aged 13 or younger in the United States are living with childhood schizophrenia. Childhood-onset schizophrenia (COS) is a rare mental health condition marked by hallucinations, disordered speech, negative or confused thoughts, fear of harm, disorganized speech, and/or catatonic behavior. It’s so uncommon, in fact, that we don’t know much about it.
That said, it’s important for parents to be aware of the symptoms of childhood-onset schizophrenia so they can help a child who may be dealing with it. Because schizophrenia in children can present differently than adult schizophrenia, understanding as much as possible, including the signs and symptoms, is key if you want to help a young person who’s living with this serious mental health condition.
Read on to learn more about schizophrenia in teens and children.
Most often, schizophrenia isn’t found in children younger than 12 years old. While still rare, if a child develops the condition, it’s typically discovered in the middle to late teen years. Early-onset schizophrenia diagnosis in children is most often found in young boys. Once the teen years are reached, however, just as many girls as boys can develop symptoms and be diagnosed.
Schizophrenia can be challenging to diagnose in children and teens, since even healthy children are apt to have mood swings and occasionally display odd behavior. This can be particularly true during the hormonal early teen years. However, there are a few distinguishing symptoms and signs of schizophrenia in children to be aware of.
Early signs of schizophrenia in children usually involve issues with odd thinking, behavior, and emotions. This can include symptoms such as bizarre ideas or speech, confusing fantasy with reality, lacking emotions, or hearing voices.
In young children, some early signs of schizophrenia may include:
As children get older, there are some of the more classic schizophrenia symptoms to look out for.
Symptoms of schizophrenia in older children may include:
Additional symptoms can include increasingly violent behavior, withdrawal from family and friends, excessive suspicions and paranoia, and depressed moods. Compared to adults, children are more likely to have visual hallucinations and hear voices but are less likely to have delusions.
Suicidal thoughts are also common for those with schizophrenia at any age.
As noted, childhood schizophrenia is rare. Typically, schizophrenia doesn’t manifest until someone is between 18 and 25 years old. However, schizophrenia in teens and children does exist.
The full understanding of schizophrenia causes, at any age, isn’t fully understood. It’s believed and widely accepted that the condition can stem from a combination of parents’ genes and brain chemical and neurotransmitter imbalances, such as off-levels of dopamine and glutamate.
“It’s considered best practice to defer official diagnosis until after 18 years of age, but in recent years younger children under the age of 13 are being treated for schizophrenia. Diagnosis is difficult and controversial because many of the symptoms could be due to developmental issues.”
A few things appear to make it more likely for a child to develop schizophrenia. They can include:
Early treatment is a critical component in effectively managing symptoms of schizophrenia at any age. Over time, both positive symptoms and negative symptoms of schizophrenia can become more obvious, and a child may develop psychosis. Especially in children, treatment can help prevent or limit the severity of psychotic episodes, which can be understandably scary for a child and their parents to try and navigate alone.
“When treating a child with schizophrenia, the family also needs to be referred to services, including family therapy. A team of professionals including psychiatrists, social workers, teachers, and therapists offer support to the family.”
Diagnosing schizophrenia in a child, whether younger or in their teenage years, involves first ruling out any other mental or physical condition or medication issues that might be causing or contributing to symptoms.
For that reason, the first step in diagnosis is typically a full medical exam, a screening to rule out drug or alcohol abuse, and an MRI or CT scan to make sure the child doesn’t have a medical condition that causes similar symptoms.
After ruling out medical or medication issues, a teen or child will be given a psychiatric evaluation. This will typically involve:
Childhood schizophrenia is a chronic condition that requires a lifetime of treatment. However, by addressing the condition early, your child’s healthcare provider can help prevent the disorder from progressing and prevent the child from possibly harming themself or others.
Schizophrenia treatment options will depend on the child, their age, and how severe their condition is. Usually, care will involve antipsychotic medication and a team of mental health professionals who specialize in the treatment of schizophrenia in kids. Families are almost always encouraged to play an active role in treatment. Treatment teams might include social workers, caseworkers to coordinate care, school counselors, psychiatric nurses, and pharmacists as well.
The primary treatment options for a child or teen with schizophrenia are:
Dealing with schizophrenia can be difficult for a child or teen. After all, this is the age when a child wants to fit in, not stand out because of unusual behavior.
Schizophrenia in kids and teens can be particularly difficult as most kids lack the skills necessary to deal with their condition. That’s why early treatment is so critical. It’s also why it’s so necessary to be proactive and get adequate and appropriate support for your child at school. Encourage them to interact with other children and be sure to get them the therapy and help they need to develop effective coping skills.
As upsetting as having a child diagnosed with schizophrenia can be, there is some good news. If you want it, there’s support available for you, too. Don’t be afraid to ask for help as you try to navigate treatment options and all the ups and downs that come with a schizophrenia diagnosis.
Your child’s mental health team can put you in touch with a support group for parents with a child with schizophrenia. In addition, the National Alliance on Mental Illness can connect you with a support group in your area.
Talkspace’s online therapy platform is an excellent place for parents to get support and guidance so they can help their child. If you’re trying to figure out how you can best assist a child or teen who’s been diagnosed with schizophrenia, or if you suspect your child might need help, reach out today to get the assistance you need. You’re not in this alone…help is there, for you and your child.
Bartlett J. Health Psychol Behav Med. 2014;2(1):735-747. doi:10.1080/21642850.2014.927738. Accessed May 11, 2022.
Gochman P, Miller R, Rapoport J. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2011;13(5):321-322. doi:10.1007/s11920-011-0212-4. Accessed May 11, 2022.
NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. Nami.org. Accessed May 11, 2022.
Dr. Karmen Smith is a board-certified Clinical Social Worker in the state of Nevada. She has worked over 20 years for Clark County Family Services with abused and neglected children in the shelter, adolescents in juvenile detention, and adults who have suffered severe trauma. Dr. Smith is a shamanic teacher and minister of metaphysics and her doctorate is in Pastoral Counseling.