Parents are typically shocked, frightened and sometimes angry when they first witness the bizarre behavior associated with childhood schizophrenia. Everyday life often becomes a continual struggle for a child afflicted with this illness, also known as childhood-onset schizophrenia and early-onset schizophrenia.
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, schizophrenia disorders are serious illnesses but relatively rare in children. They’re also hard to diagnose in young children because the symptoms seem so vague to parents and doctors.
The Mayo Clinic reports that while around one percent of the general population suffers from schizophrenia, the percentage is even smaller for affected children. Doctors define early-onset schizophrenia as the type that occurs between ages 13 and 18. When the disease strikes children 12 or younger, it’s known as very early-onset schizophrenia. Both types are incurable.
Experts have yet to determine the cause of any type of schizophrenia. However, research is leaning toward some combination of changes to the brain, bio-chemical problems and both genetic and environmental factors. Among known risk factors are having a family history of any type of schizophrenia, being exposed to certain viruses prior to birth and experiencing malnutrition while in the womb. Other sources of elevated risk include being born to older parents, taking psychoactive drugs as a teen, experiencing a stressful early life and suffering trauma or abuse as a child.
Signs and Symptoms
The hallmark signs of childhood schizophrenia are hallucinations, particularly hearing voices that don’t exist. Afflicted children generally display a lack of emotion or act inappropriately for the circumstances.
Many develop a belief system based on various delusions. Often they can’t tell reality from something that occurred on television. Paranoia, severe anxiety, agitation and fearfulness are common. Some children have problems maintaining an acceptable level of personal hygiene and experience extreme difficulty relating to other kids. Even managing to take a bath every day becomes an insurmountable task for many patients.
Over time, the behavior of patients with childhood schizophrenia typically starts to slowly change. Teachers sometimes notice a pattern of withdrawal at school before the child has been diagnosed. Some youngsters cling to their parents and/or start to make statements that make no sense to anyone.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Typically, at least several physicians are involved before diagnosis and treatment of a case of childhood schizophrenia. Parents should start with their pediatrician or a family practitioner for a complete physical exam and blood tests. In some cases, the doctor might also order a head MRI or an EEG to check for abnormal brain anatomy or function. This physician will refer the child to a mental-health specialist, ideally a child and adolescent psychiatrist.
Treatment for most children with this disorder is a combination of medication, individual therapy and family therapy. It usually involves specialized school and activity programs. A treatment team often also includes a psychotherapist, pharmacist, case worker, psychiatric nurse and one or more social workers.
Doctors use a number of antipsychotic drugs to treat childhood schizophrenia. Because of potentially serious side effects, parents should understand the advantages and drawbacks of each proposed drug. Since children often react to these medications differently from the way adults do, careful monitoring by a doctor is essential while taking any of them. When symptoms are particularly severe, hospitalization might be necessary.