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 is almost always a lifelong disorder that can cause serious problems in day-to-day living. 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 has 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 or abuse may make the symptoms start sooner and be more severe.
  • The brain makes chemicals that affect thoughts, emotions, and actions. Without the right balance of these chemicals, there may be problems with the way your child thinks, feels, or acts. Children with this disorder may have too little or too much of some of these chemicals.
  • 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.

It is very rare for this disorder to start before age 12. It tends to starts slowly, usually after the age of 19. Girls and young women often develop symptoms later than boys and young men. Symptoms usually increase over 3 to 5 years, but can start suddenly over a few weeks.

What are the symptoms?

No single symptom defines this illness. Some of the symptoms are behaviors that would not be seen in people without mental illness. These types of symptoms are called positive symptoms. They may come and go, and they may be mild to severe. Positive symptoms include:

  • Hearing things that others do not
  • Believing things that are not true, such as thinking that others are trying to hurt them
  • 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

Some of the normal emotions and behaviors that people have are missing in children with schizophrenia. These are called negative symptoms. Negative symptoms are often harder to recognize and may be mistaken for depression or other mental illnesses. Negative symptoms include:

  • Having no facial expression, such as a smile or a frown
  • Not making eye contact
  • Not moving or responding to other people
  • Not bathing or combing hair
  • Speaking in a flat voice or talking very little or not at all
  • Having trouble enjoying anything

Other problems with the way children with schizophrenia think may make it very hard to lead a normal life, such as:

  • Having trouble using information to make a decision
  • Having trouble paying attention
  • Having trouble using information that they have just learned

How is it diagnosed?

Your child’s healthcare provider or therapist will ask about your child’s symptoms, medical and family history, and any medicines your child is taking. He will make sure your child does not have a medical illness or drug or alcohol problem that could cause the symptoms. Your child may have tests or scans to help make a diagnosis.

A mental health professional should make the final diagnosis. The diagnosis is made based on a thorough psychiatric interview of your child and other family members.

How is it treated?


Medicines are the most important part of the treatment. Several types of medicines can help. Your child may need to take more than one type of medicine. Your healthcare provider will work with you to select the best ones for your child. These medicines may cause side effects, but you and your healthcare provider will be able to watch for them. Your healthcare provider may change how much or how often your child takes the medicine, or change the medicine your child has been taking.

It is important for your child to stay on the medicine to keep symptoms under control. If your child is thinking about stopping his medicine, talk to your child’s provider first. Medicines used to treat schizophrenia should not be stopped suddenly or without your provider’s okay.

Supportive therapy

Schizophrenia changes the way your child relates to others and the way your child thinks about everyday activities. Other people may be uncomfortable with your child’s unusual or unexpected behavior and they may avoid your child. There are several kinds of therapy that can help.

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. It takes place in a group of 6 to 10 people, under the guidance of a therapist.

Family therapy is often very helpful. Family therapy treats all members of the family rather than working with one person alone. It helps the whole family to make changes.

Your child may need to spend some time in a hospital if he is thinking about hurting himself or someone else.

How can I take care of my child?

  • Help your child learn to manage stress. Teach your child to practice deep breathing or other relaxation techniques when feeling stressed. Help your child find ways to relax, for example take up a hobby, listen to music, watch movies, or take walks.
  • 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 your child 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. Make sure that your child takes all medicines as directed. It is very important that your child take the medicine even when he is feeling and thinking well. Without the medicine, your child’s symptoms may not improve or may get worse. Talk to your provider if your child has problems taking medicine or if the medicines don’t seem to be working.
  • 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 the therapist.
  • Keep yourself informed about schizophrenia. This will help you know what behaviors to expect and what to do and say. Stay in touch with teachers, babysitters, and other people who care for your child to share information about symptoms your child may be having.
  • 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.

Get emergency care if your child has serious thoughts of suicide or self-harm, violence, or harming others.

For more information, contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-08-28
Last reviewed: 2014-06-10
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 healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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