Schizophrenia in children, also commonly referred to as “pediatric schizophrenia” or “childhood schizophrenia” is a mental illness that affects individuals under the age of 18. They may display the same classic symptoms of schizophrenia, but the symptoms appear at a much younger age than is typical. Most people that are diagnosed with schizophrenia tend to be in their 20’s. Men tend to get diagnosed on average between ages 20 and 25, while women usually are diagnosed later between ages 25 and 30.
Childhood onset schizophrenia statistics
Despite the fact that most people develop schizophrenia in their 20’s, schizophrenia can affect about 1 in 40,000 children. Statistically speaking, this is significantly less than the rate at which the illness affects adults (approximately 1 in 100 adults are affected). Although most people that are diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia are closer to becoming an adult (e.g. they are almost 18), there are cases of young kids even having to cope with the illness.
Schizophrenia is extremely uncommon among children under 8 years of age. About 50% of children diagnosed with schizophrenia experience extreme symptoms. The symptoms experienced are very similar to adult schizophrenia. Usually the diagnosis is made with the help of a child’s parents, teachers, and/or other caretakers, and in some cases, based on self-reports. Unfortunately we do not know what causes schizophrenia, but it can be managed with therapy and antipsychotic medication.
The diagnosis can take a heavy toll on the emotions of not only the kid that doesn’t understand what is going on in his or her reality, but also on the child’s family members.
Symptoms of Schizophrenia in Children
Most symptoms that schizophrenic children experience are similar to those experienced by adults. They may behave oddly, have difficulty with social interaction, and may experience auditory or visual hallucinations. Before schizophrenia is diagnosed, other illnesses with similar symptoms must be ruled out including autism and bipolar disorder. Medical conditions and other personality disorders should also be ruled out before assuming schizophrenia. Below are various early signs and symptoms of schizophrenia among children that may be observed.
- Abnormal behavior – Upon observation, the child may behave very oddly and engage in behaviors that make zero sense. Obviously a lot of kids do this to a certain degree, but in cases of schizophrenia, they may not even understand why they are doing it or have poor logic behind what they are doing.
- Delusions – One tell-tale symptom in all cases of schizophrenia are delusions. The child may believe that they are being poisoned or think that someone is spying on them or reading their thoughts. These delusions have no basis in actual reality.
- Depression – It is typical in most cases for the child to experience a comorbid diagnosis of depression. The child may keep to themselves and appear to be extremely depressed.
- Flat affect – The child may appear to not have any emotions or speak in a very monotone manner. This is a result of emotional blunting and is considered “flat” affect or “flat” emotion. They may be unable to express excitement, joy, or any kind of happiness.
- Hallucinations – An obvious sign is if the child experiences auditory hallucinations (e.g. hearing voices in their head) and/or experiences visual hallucinations (e.g. sees things that aren’t really there). If the voices are persecutory or very mean to the child, this is likely schizophrenia.
- Poor grades – The schizophrenic child may experience a noticeable decline at school. This is usually evidenced by a steep drop-off in academic performance.
- Poor motor processing – Their mental functioning and overall acuity experiences a significant decline. They may also not be able to perform physical activities very well.
- Social isolation – They may have no friends and/or intentionally isolate themselves from social activity.
- Speech problems – It is very common for the schizophrenic child to speak in a “monotone” or without much emotion behind their speech. They may have problems stringing together sensible sentences.
- Strange thinking – The person may experience strange thinking or magical beliefs. An example of such a belief would be that they have supernatural powers that no one else knows about.
Causes of Schizophrenia in Children
No one knows what exactly causes schizophrenia, but there have been some strong links established. There are many hypotheses that have been established that may shed some light on the development of this disease.
- Abuse – Some people believe that abuse can be stressful enough to trigger schizophrenia in some individuals. The child’s brain may be unable to process or cope with the extreme amounts of stress, which could cause them to break with reality. It is important to understand that being abused may cause similar symptoms to schizophrenia as well – just because someone is abused does not mean they have schizophrenia. Many symptoms of abuse are very similar to schizophrenia in children.
- Brain structure – Children that develop schizophrenia tend to have abnormal brain structures. These abnormalities can also be noted in adults with the illness. In MRI scans, children with schizophrenia showed fluid-filled cavities in the middle section of the brain. They also had a shrinkage in brain tissue volume and had 4x less gray matter in their frontal lobes.
- Disruption in brain development – Anything that could cause a disruption in brain development throughout childhood could lead to the disease.
- Exposure to toxins – Various environmental toxins such as exposure to high levels of lead paint has been shown to trigger/cause schizophrenia. There are other toxins that may increase risk of developing this disease as well. Anything that can harm the brain such as pesticides, parasites, etc. could be associated with disease development.
- Genetic predisposition – If schizophrenia runs in the family and/or one (or both) of the child’s parents have the disease, there is a greater chance that they also have it. Typically genetics is the most common cause of the disease in children. If there is a family member with the disease, the risk jumps 10x and if a twin has it, 50x.
- Neurological damage – Studies have demonstrated that children with schizophrenia tend to have progressive ventricular hypertrophy as well as problems with their ability to metabolize glucose. In other words, they have a dysfunctional glucose metabolic system.
- Nervous system arousal – All individuals with schizophrenia tend to show differences with nervous system arousal levels as well as their ability to track moving objects.
- Parenting – Certain individuals think that parenting can lead to development of schizophrenia. Very negative, abusive parenting may play a role in activating underlying stressors that could lead to development of the illness.
- Prenatal development (womb) – If the child experiences problems with development in the womb, this could lead to the development of schizophrenia. Additionally, lack of oxygen at birth, untreated blood type incompatibility, and starvation may also play a role.
- Stressors – Stressful life events are thought to serve as potential triggers for development of schizophrenia in children.
- Viral infections – Some suggest that a neurovirus occurring during pregnancy could lead to development of the disease. Other things such as influenza during pregnancy could have an effect on the development.
Schizophrenia Treatment for Children
Unfortunately there aren’t very many solid treatment options for those who have schizophrenia. If you want to ensure the best possible outcome, you may want to consider some natural remedies along with an antipsychotic regimen.
- Antipsychotics – A psychiatrist will likely prescribe an antipsychotic medication to help deal with the symptoms. This has an effect on the dopamine pathways in the brain and is thought to improve cognition, functioning, and reduce unwanted symptoms. Unfortunately these drugs carry a lot of side effects. In a child, the dosage will obviously need to be lower than that for an adult.
- Natural Remedies – I wrote an article about natural remedies for schizophrenia. Many consist of taking various amino acids, vitamins, and EPA omega-3 fatty acids. You may want to read the list and consider whether some of the options would be smart to pursue in addition to standard psychiatric treatment. It should be noted that schizophrenia cannot be cured naturally and that there is currently no “cure” for the illness.
- Therapy – It is important to get involved in psychotherapeutic means to treat the illness. Patients nearly always seem to do better when they have interaction with a licensed psychologist or psychotherapist in what is referred to as “personal therapy.”
Childhood schizophrenia prognosis
Unfortunately the earlier the onset of schizophrenia, the more severe and difficult it is to treat throughout the lifetime. People that experience schizophrenia from a young age usually have a much tougher time functioning in society compared to someone who is diagnosed in adulthood.
This is simply due to the fact that they haven’t had enough developmental experiences to learn how to properly function in society as they are still children. Most medications that the children will be treated with carry heavy side effects such as weight gain, tardive dyskinesia, and uncontrollable motor problems. This is why it is important that we raise awareness for this disease in both children and adults.
People don’t know what causes it, the treatment options are basically “hit or miss,” and most people have lifelong difficulties as a result of schizophrenia. The only things that can be done are take advantage of medication, natural remedies, in conjunction with psychotherapies and hope that the condition improves.