Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe disorder that impacts the brain in a way that alters how someone feels, thinks, and acts. Childhood schizophrenia is incredibly rare, but it can occur.

Most people start to experience symptoms of schizophrenia between the ages of 16 and 30 years old, but in rare cases, children can develop schizophrenia.

Childhood schizophrenia is much less common than adult schizophrenia. Around 0.04% of people experience schizophrenia as children, while some 0.25%–0.64% of adults in the United States experience the disorder. That said, as researchers learn more about schizophrenia in children, and discover better ways to identify it, childhood-onset schizophrenia may become more common.

Keep reading to learn more about the early signs of schizophrenia in children, as well as the general symptoms of the condition, diagnosis, and the outlook for this condition.

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Early signs of schizophrenia can be very difficult to detect in children and adolescents, because symptoms often overlap with adolescent changes in behavior and other more common childhood conditions.

Symptoms of schizophrenia may also be different in children and adolescents than in adults, and they may develop or worsen gradually over time.

Early signs of schizophrenia in children and adolescents include:

  • changing friends or having trouble keeping them
  • increase in unusual ideas and thoughts
  • hallucinations (seeing, smelling, hearing, or feeling things that are not real)
  • odd speech or behavior
  • confusing things from television and dreams from reality
  • personality changes
  • confused thinking
  • severe fearfulness and anxiety
  • trouble relating to peers
  • reduced self-care and hygiene
  • increased isolation or social withdrawal
  • paranoia (thinking that people are discussing them or out to get them)
  • attention problems
  • drop in academic performance and grades
  • irritability or extreme moodiness
  • problems sleeping

Schizophrenia can cause a wide range of symptoms that can drastically change someone’s behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. Different people can also experience different symptoms of schizophrenia.

Some common symptoms of schizophrenia include:

  • delusions (believing something that is not true and often not realistic)
  • hallucinations
  • hearing voices that are not real
  • problems putting thoughts together in a cohesive way or struggling to make sense of what someone is saying
  • odd repetitive actions, strange mannerisms, or clumsiness
  • reduction or loss of the ability to speak, express emotion, find pleasure in things, and make plans
  • lack of expression
  • reduced ability to start and complete planned activities
  • social withdrawal
  • memory or attention problems
  • paranoia

No one knows why schizophrenia occurs. However, researchers think schizophrenia develops due to a combination of genetics, environmental factors, brain changes, and biochemical factors.

When early signs of schizophrenia develop in young people, they are experiencing a stage of the disorder known as the “prodromal” period. When someone is experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia such as delusions or hallucinations, they are in the “acute” or “relapse” stage. Once symptoms resolve they are in the “remission” stage.

While researchers still do not fully understand why people develop schizophrenia, there are certain risk factors that seem to increase someone’s chances of experiencing it.

Risk factors for schizophrenia include:

  • family history of schizophrenia
  • brain chemistry, structure, and development
  • environmental factors such as stressful environments, exposure to viruses or nutritional deficiencies before birth, having an autoimmune disorder, and living in poverty
  • substance use, in particular taking mind-altering drugs

In most cases, a child psychiatrist will diagnose schizophrenia in a child if they experience symptoms or early warning signs of the disorder for at least 6 months.

For a proper diagnosis, two or more of the symptoms of schizophrenia someone experiences — such as hallucinations, disorganized speech or behavior, or delusions — must be severe and last for a minimum of 1 month. Before they diagnose a child with schizophrenia, a doctor will likely also perform a complete physical and neurological exam to rule out the potential of other conditions.

If someone’s delusions are very bizarre, or if their hallucinations include a voice that is continuously commenting on their thoughts or behavior, or multiple voices that seem to be talking to each other, a doctor may diagnose schizophrenia even without any other symptoms being present.

Researchers are currently trying to find markers of schizophrenia — such as certain blood chemicals or abnormalities in brain scans — that doctors can use to detect the disorder earlier and allow for early treatment.

There is no cure for schizophrenia, but using a mix of medications and behavioral therapy can help manage the disorder.

Antipsychotic medications are the treatment of choice for schizophrenia because they reduce symptoms by impacting how nerves in the brain communicate. Someone taking antipsychotic medications to manage schizophrenia should never stop taking the medications without talking with a doctor first.

To find a treatment center that focuses on helping young people with schizophrenia, click here.

Learn more about treatment here.

Researchers and psychiatrists are still trying to understand many details about childhood schizophrenia, also known as very early onset schizophrenia. Some research suggests that people who experience symptoms of psychosis as children, such as delusions and hallucinations, may develop a more severe case of schizophrenia.

People who develop schizophrenia as children or young adolescents (under the age of 18) may also experience longer periods of untreated psychosis, and lower education levels.

If a child receives proper treatment after their first psychotic episode, the frequency and severity of future episodes are often drastically reduced. By some estimates, if someone receives proper treatment within 2–3 years after their first episode of psychosis, their risk of further episodes reduces by more than 50%, and prevents much of the disability linked with schizophrenia. For these reasons, early detection is incredibly important.

While it is very rare, children can develop psychosis and schizophrenia.

Childhood-onset schizophrenia is typically very difficult to recognize early because many of the hallmark symptoms are common in children without schizophrenia.

In particular, these include becoming more socially withdrawn, being very irritable or moody, becoming less successful at academics, changing friend groups, having trouble sleeping, and having reduced self-hygiene.

If a child’s behavior, speech, or cognitive abilities start to change, talk with a doctor. Parents who notice changes in their children’s behaviors or abilities should also talk with the child openly about what they are experiencing, as some children may decide to hide their internal symptoms out of fear of rejection or stigma.