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Schizophrenia in Children and Teens


What is schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness. People with this illness have disturbed and disorganized thinking, language, and behavior. They may see, hear, or feel things that aren't really there. Sometimes the speech of a person with schizophrenia makes no sense. This disorder usually causes serious problems in day-to-day living.

How does it occur?

There are many theories about the cause of this disorder. If a child has one parent who is schizophrenic, then the chances of the child developing it are 10 times that of other children. This is true even if the child grows up away from the schizophrenic parent. Schizophrenia is not caused by poor parenting, child abuse, or neglect. However, very poor parenting, chaos, and high stress in a child's life may make the symptoms come sooner and be more severe.

Schizophrenic-like symptoms can be produced by substance abuse. The use of LSD or large amounts of cocaine or amphetamines can produce symptoms that look like schizophrenia for several hours after taking the drugs.

It is very rare for this disorder to begin before age 12. It usually begins slowly in the early adult years, usually after the age of 19. Girls and young women often develop symptoms a few years later than boys and young men. Symptoms usually increase over 3 to 5 years. Sometimes schizophrenia begins suddenly over a few weeks.

What are the symptoms?

Two or more of the following symptoms are present for at least a month:

  • behaving in a very disorganized or odd manner such as wearing winter clothing during summer
  • sitting or lying motionless
  • changing to topics that make no sense in conversations
  • having delusions (may include paranoid ideas that others are out to get them or ideas that they have some special status, like Martians talking to them)
  • having hallucinations (most often hearing voices that no one else can hear, but could also involve seeing people or objects that are not there, or feeling things that are not there, such as bugs on the skin)
  • having a very flat, uninvolved mood
  • neglecting personal hygiene and grooming, such as not bathing or combing hair
  • withdrawing from social contact and not speaking to anyone

How is it diagnosed?

Your child's healthcare provider will ask about your child's symptoms. Other diseases can cause many of the symptoms. The provider will make sure that a medical problem or drugs such as LSD, amphetamines, or cocaine, are not causing the symptoms.

A mental health professional should make the final diagnosis. The diagnosis is made based on a thorough psychiatric interview of the child and family members. As yet, there are no medical tests for schizophrenia.

How is it treated?

Medicines are the most important part of the treatment. Unfortunately, many of the medicines have not been researched with preteen children and have only limited research with teenagers. The medicines need to be taken continuously for a few weeks to reach their full benefit. The medicines will usually need to be taken long-term to keep symptoms from coming back.

Schizophrenia changes the way your child relates to others. It also changes the way your child thinks. A therapist or case manager can help your child cope with this illness. It can be helpful for family members to be involved in psychotherapy to help cope with your child's disorder.

How long will the effects last?

This is almost always a life long disorder. With medicine and good social support, however, most schizophrenics can lead productive lives. Often the symptoms decrease in middle age.

What can I do to help my child?

  • If your child begins to show any of the symptoms listed above, have him or her evaluated by a mental health professional.
  • Encourage your child to exercise for at least 20 minutes every day.
  • Help your child to eat a healthy diet.
  • Help your child to get 7 to 9 hours of rest per night.
  • Help your child keep your appointments with their therapist.
  • Avoid stressful situations in your child's life whenever possible. These may make the symptoms worse.
  • Help your child to stay away from drugs, alcohol, and caffeine, since these may make the symptoms worse.
  • Keep yourself well informed about mental illness and its meaning for your family. This will help you know what behaviors to expect and what to do and say.
  • Consider attending a support group. Talking with other people who face the same challenges can help you cope with the mental illness and its impact on your life. Talk honestly about your feelings and encourage others in the family to do the same.

If your child or teen acts aggressive or self-injures, get professional help immediately. Almost all towns and cities have mental health crisis telephone numbers.

For more information, contact:

  • Mental Health America (formerly the National Mental Health Association at 800-969-6642, or visit their Web site at http://www.nmha.org
  • the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression at 800-829-8289, or visit their Web site at http://www.narsad.org
  • the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill at 800-950-6264, or visit their Web site at http://www.nami.org

Written by Gayle Zieman, PhD for RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2010-12-27
Last reviewed: 2010-05-10

This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.

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