Signs And Symptoms Of Childhood Schizophrenia
Updated February 01, 2020
Reviewer Audrey Kelly, LMFT
Childhood schizophrenia is extremely rare, and difficult to diagnose. Most children go through several misdiagnoses before they are diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia. It is an extremely serious and debilitating mental illness. Before a diagnosis is given of childhood schizophrenia, your child's doctors will go through some diagnoses and treatments to rule them out before giving the ultimate diagnosis.
Childhood schizophrenia is in part difficult to diagnose because children frequently have overactive imaginations, which could lead one to believe they have hallucinations or delusions. This overactive imagination is simply a part of normal childhood for many children. However, with childhood schizophrenia, many symptoms may be present in addition to this overactive imagination.
Understanding the symptoms of childhood schizophrenia as well as the apparent signs you may see of the disorder can help you as a parent prepares for the possibility of such a diagnosis. If your child has been having mental health problems for some time, you might want to familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms, as well as the the treatment options for childhood schizophrenia.
- Childhood-Onset Schizophrenia
Childhood-onset schizophrenia is considered to be the onset of the mental illness in children under the age of thirteen. It is extremely rare and does not occur very frequently. However, when childhood schizophrenia does occur it is typically insidious, and symptoms may not be definitive of the illness. It often takes several misdiagnoses before a diagnosis of childhood schizophrenia is given. One of the diagnostic tools that psychiatrists are supposed to follow includes ruling out these other mental illnesses or deficits.
- Childhood Schizophrenia Symptoms
Childhood schizophrenia follows the same symptomology as schizophrenia in adults. The same guidelines that psychiatrists use for diagnosis in adults are used for children. To be diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia, the child must have two or more of these symptoms, and they must last for at least one month in a six-month period.
Delusions are one of the common symptoms of childhood schizophrenia. It can be difficult to know if your child is having delusions or if they are just playing pretend as kids will often do. An example of a delusion would be if your child truly believed they had superhuman powers, or that someone or something supernatural was against them.
It can be difficult to determine if your child is having delusions or just playing make-believe. Children can be very adamant that they have superpowers, for example, even if they don't believe that it is true. For this reason, it is important that there are other symptoms present of childhood schizophrenia before reaching that conclusion.
Another common symptom of childhood schizophrenia is hallucinations. Essentially, this means that they are hearing or seeing things that do not exist. Again, you have to be very careful when monitoring your child for this symptom, because it can be quite possible that they are playing and don't see or hear something that you can't. For example, it is common for children to have an imaginary friend, but that doesn't mean that they are truly seeing that person that isn't there.
Disorganized speech is a hallmark of childhood schizophrenia, and it is a symptom that is more definitive than the others. Your child has disorganized speech if they speak and you cannot understand what they are trying to communicate to you, even though they feel they were clear. It is also considered disorganized speech if your child frequently derails, changing topics at the drop of a hat or suddenly saying something unrelated to the topic of conversation.
Disorganized or Catatonic Behavior
Disorganized or catatonic behavior is another symptom of childhood schizophrenia. Again, children can seem disorganized in their behavior, so this can be difficult to judge depending on the age of the child. However, the catatonic behavior causes for concern. Catatonic behavior is when the child stares off with a blank look and does not respond to stimulation, calling their name, talking to them, or touching them to get their attention, for long periods of time.
There are also a few negative symptoms of childhood schizophrenia that your child's doctor will look for. One of these is affective flattening, which means that the child has limited emotional expression. They may have immobile or unresponsive facial expressions, poor eye contact, and little or no body language.
Another negative symptom is alogia, in which the child has difficulty speaking. They may have difficulty choosing their words, such as verbal fluency, or they may speak very little overall. The last negative symptom is avolition, which refers to a loss of motivation. They may sit for long periods of time doing nothing at all, taking little interest in their surroundings.
- Signs Of Childhood Schizophrenia
There are some signs of childhood schizophrenia that may help you to notice the symptoms if they are present. These are not necessarily symptoms of the mental illness, but they are signs that something is not right with your child that may need to be addressed.
One of the first signs of childhood schizophrenia is that your child will have problems in school. Their grades may drop, or they may never get good grades. They may have problems with their attention span and being disruptive in class, or teachers may report that they simply sit and are unresponsive much of the time.
Many children who are eventually diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia are first diagnosed with learning disabilities. One of the requirements for a diagnosis of childhood schizophrenia is that there may be signs similar to learning disabilities, but the IQ of the child is not low enough for such a diagnosis.
Your child may be very aggressive, particularly when defending their delusions or hallucinations. Many children will claim to see things that are not there, like imaginary friends. Or they may play make believe that they have superhuman powers. However, children with childhood schizophrenia believe these things are real, and when they are challenged, they may become very aggressive in their speech and actions.
Many children have overactive imaginations. However, when this becomes concerning is when the child doesn't seem to be able to distinguish reality from their mind. This can be a sign that they are having true delusions or hallucinations. An overactive imagination alone is not causing for concern, but when combined with other symptoms and signs of childhood schizophrenia, it can complete the picture of what is going on with your child.
Misdiagnoses of Psychiatric Disorders
All children who end with a diagnosis of childhood schizophrenia first go through many misdiagnoses of their mental health condition. Ruling out other mental illnesses and learning disabilities is a vital part of the diagnostic process. Your child may first be diagnosed with ADHD, mood disorders like bipolar disorder, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, or PTSD. Medical causes for hallucinations and delusions must also be ruled out.
Childhood Schizophrenia Treatment
There are not very many treatment options for childhood schizophrenia. Childhood schizophrenia treatment is typically a combination of therapy and medication treatment. Many studies have been done to try to determine better and further childhood schizophrenia treatment, but so far there is only evidence for one medication and two types of therapy.
As with any mental illness, therapy plays an important role in limiting symptoms and improving quality of life. Studies have found that operant conditioning and play therapy are successful forms of treatment. One study found that many of the subjects had improved mental age and speech after operant conditioning. Play therapy is designed to help the child understand their condition and how to manage symptoms and feelings.
Some children with childhood schizophrenia may be treated with atypical neuroleptics, although some children are not responsive to this treatment. Studies support the use of clozapine in childhood schizophrenia treatment. Most of the patients who take clozapine have success in lowering the impact of symptoms of the mental illness. However, clozapine can have some serious side effects, and it is important that parents and practitioners closely monitor children on clozapine.
It is important that if your child shows symptoms of childhood schizophrenia that you seek help for your child right away. Therapists and psychiatrists will evaluate your child and their symptoms and rule out all other possibilities before giving a diagnosis of childhood schizophrenia. They will be able to evaluate your child with your help and the help of your child's school teachers and caregivers to identify symptoms and possible causes.
Even if that diagnosis never comes, signs and symptoms of childhood schizophrenia are cause for concern and may lead to another important mental health diagnosis. To help your child function more fully in the world, at school, and home, it is important that you get them into a therapist as quickly as possible after noticing symptoms. The sooner treatment begins, the more likely you will have success with whatever the professionals prescribe treatment and therapy.