What is Childhood Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a chronic mental illness that is characterized by a breakdown in the relation between thought, emotion, and behavior, leading to a faulty perception, inappropriate actions and feelings, withdrawal from reality and personal relationships into fantasy and delusion, and a sense of mental fragmentation.
Essentially the same disease diagnosed in adults, childhood schizophrenia occurs early in life, sometimes before the teenage years, and has an extensive impact on a child’s behavior. Children with schizophrenia often have hallucinations, delusions, and irrational behavior and thinking.1 They often have difficulty carrying out routine tasks.1 Oftentimes, with childhood schizophrenia, the early age of onset presents particular challenges regarding diagnosis, treatment, educational needs, and emotional and social development.1 However, early diagnosis can significantly improve the child’s long-term outcome.1
Some of the earliest indications of childhood schizophrenia are language delays, late or unusual crawling and walking, and abnormal motor behaviors, such as rocking or arm flapping.1 While some of these symptoms overlap with those of pervasive developmental disorders, such as autism, ruling out all other disorders is the first step to diagnosing childhood schizophrenia.1
As the child with schizophrenia ages, more of the typical signs and symptoms of the disorder begin to appear.1 They may see or hear things that do not exist, have irrational beliefs, lack emotions, show emotions that are inappropriate for the situation, and withdraw socially.1 Children with schizophrenia also often have poor school performance, a decreased ability to practice self-care, present strange eating rituals, become easily agitated, speak incoherently, and think illogically.1
Childhood schizophrenia that begins very early in life may be difficult to diagnose as the early signs and symptoms are so vague that they may be attributed to a developmental phase.1 Symptoms build up gradually, and as time goes on, they become more severe and more noticeable.1 Eventually, the child may develop symptoms of psychosis—hallucinations, delusions, and difficulty organizing thoughts—which leads to a break from reality.1 Psychosis is distressing to children and their families, as it often requires hospitalization and treatment with medicine.1
While it may be difficult for parents to seek help when symptoms emerge, afraid of stigmatizing labels, early treatment helps drastically in the long-run.1 If the child has stopped meeting daily expectations, no longer wants to socialize, has difficulty academically, is violent or aggressive, or has symptoms of any other mental disorders, it is important to seek help immediately.1 They may or may not have childhood schizophrenia, but having the phase or the condition checked could help the child in many ways: socially, academically, and personally.1
If help is not sought, the child will grow up to experience severe emotional, behavioral, health, legal, and financial problems, such as depression, suicidal thoughts and behavior, substance abuse, social withdrawal, behavioral problems (fighting, stealing, damaging property), poverty, homelessness, and the inability to live independently.1
Children with schizophrenia often have a treatment team, guided by a psychiatrist who specializes in childhood schizophrenia.1 They will likely prescribe medicine and suggest individual and family therapy and social and academic skills training.1
Antipsychotic medicine is the most effective for the treatment of schizophrenia in children.1 Atypical antipsychotics often have fewer side effects and two are FDA-approved to treat children with schizophrenia: Risperdal and Abilify.1 They manage hallucinations, delusions, loss of motivation, and lack of emotion.1 Side effects include weight gain, so diet and exercise are important to lessen the side effects of obesity, such as diabetes and high cholesterol.1
Aside from medicine, therapy is also very important.1 Children and their families will learn how to cope with the illness and even reduce some symptoms so that the child may succeed at school and foster friendships.1 With social and academic training, skill-building in areas of bathing, dressing, relationships, and other areas are focused on at age-appropriate levels.1
It is important to educate yourself about childhood schizophrenia and help your child find healthy outlets for frustration, stay focused on goals, structure their time, and, most importantly, seek professional help.1 Getting early treatment and sticking with it can help reduce the worsening symptoms of the disease.1