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Schizophrenia in Children and Teens

Schizophrenia is a serious condition that causes changes in thoughts, emotions and behavior. Children with this condition may:

  • Hear voices that others do not
  • Have behavior that is unusual
  • Say things that others do not understand
  • Not be able to tell what is real from what is imagined
  • Not show their emotions

This disorder usually causes serious problems in day-to-day living.

This is almost always a lifelong disorder. With medicine and good social support, however, most people with schizophrenia can lead productive lives. Often the symptoms decrease in middle age.

What is the cause?

The exact cause of this disorder is not known.

  • If a woman has a virus or nutrition problems while she is pregnant, it increases the risk that the child will develop schizophrenia later in life. Low oxygen levels from long labor or premature birth may also increase the risk.
  • Schizophrenia tends to run in families. If a child has one parent who is person with schizophrenia, 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 parent with schizophrenia.
  • Stress also plays a part. Schizophrenia is not caused by poor parenting, child abuse, or neglect. However, a lot of stress and abuse may make the symptoms come sooner and be more severe.
  • Children with this disorder may have physical changes in their brain. These changes may mean that some parts of the brain are more active or less active than in other children.
  • Some drugs can cause schizophrenia symptoms. These include LSD, cocaine, and amphetamines.
  • The brain is made up of cells called neurons, and chemicals called neurotransmitters. These chemicals affect your mood, emotions and behaviors. The brain cells need the right balance of these chemicals to function normally. Children with this disorder often have too little or too much of some of these chemicals in their brain.

It is very rare for this disorder to start before age 12. It usually starts slowly, 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 starts suddenly over a few weeks.

What are the symptoms?

No single symptom defines this illness. Symptoms may include:

  • Hearing, seeing, smelling, or feeling things that others do not
  • Believing things that are not true, such as believing that others are trying to hurt you
  • Having trouble keeping thoughts straight
  • Stopping talking in the middle of a sentence
  • Making up words that have no meaning
  • Repeating certain motions over and over or not moving at all
  • Having no facial expression, such as a smile or a frown
  • Dressing oddly, like wearing winter gloves in summer
  • Not bathing or combing hair
  • Speaking in a flat voice
  • Talking to people very little or not at all
  • Having trouble enjoying anything
  • Having trouble using information to make a decision
  • Having trouble paying attention

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. Your child may have brain scans such as CT or MRI, or blood tests to help rule out other disorders that have similar 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.

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 will usually need to be taken long-term to keep symptoms from coming back.

It is very important for your child to take the medicine even when he is feeling and thinking well. Without the medicine, your child is very likely to have a relapse.

Supportive therapy

Schizophrenia changes the way your child relates to others. It also changes the way your child thinks. There are several kinds of therapy that can help a person with schizophrenia.

Supportive therapy can help your child learn about schizophrenia, and get advice about how to manage daily challenges.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on thinking and behavior. The therapist helps your child learn how to:

  • Test the reality of his thoughts
  • Ignore voices in his head
  • Cope with stress
  • Identify early warning signs that symptoms are getting worse
  • Set goals and motivate himself

Group therapy can help your child deal with school, relationships, and drug therapy and side effects.

Family therapy can help your family learn about schizophrenia and how to help your child.

What can I do to help my child?

  • Support your child. Avoid stressful situations in your child's life whenever possible. These may make the symptoms worse. The support and understanding that you provide can help your child manage stress.

    Stay in touch with teachers, babysitters, and other people who care for your child to share information about symptoms your child may be having.

  • Take care of your child’s physical health. Make sure your child eats a healthy diet and gets enough sleep and exercise every day. Teach children and teens to avoid alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and drugs.
  • Check your child’s medicines. To help prevent problems, tell your healthcare provider and pharmacist about all of the medicines, natural remedies, vitamins, and other supplements that your child takes.
  • Contact your child’s healthcare provider or therapist if you have any questions or your child’s symptoms seem to be getting worse. Help your child keep appointments with their therapist.
  • Keep yourself informed about schizophrenia. 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 schizophrenia 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.

For more information, contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-12-12
Last reviewed: 2012-06-25
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 healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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