Childhood schizophrenia is a severe psychiatric disorder that starts before your child turns 13. Symptoms include delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech and movements, and reductions in motivation and their ability to feel and express emotions. Early and regular treatment offers the best outlook.
Childhood schizophrenia is a very rare, severe psychiatric condition that begins before your child is 13. Psychiatric conditions affect people’s mental health and how they see the world around them. Symptoms of childhood schizophrenia include psychosis, and movement and thought (cognitive) disorders. Childhood schizophrenia interferes with things like your child’s:
As a result, your child may struggle in many parts of their day-to-day life. Untreated schizophrenia often disrupts your child’s relationships (with family, friends, classmates and teachers). It can also cause them to have trouble organizing their thoughts. Your child may behave in ways that can hurt themselves or others. They may have a higher risk of injuries or other illnesses.
To be diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia, children must be younger than 13. Especially in young children, childhood schizophrenia can look like other mental health or developmental conditions, including:
Symptoms of these conditions often appear before psychosis. This can make it difficult to say exactly when your child’s schizophrenia starts.
Childhood schizophrenia is also known as very early-onset schizophrenia, childhood-onset schizophrenia or pediatric schizophrenia. Very early-onset schizophrenia develops before a child turns 13. This is different from early-onset schizophrenia, which develops in adolescence.
Childhood schizophrenia is very rare. About 1 in 10,000 children has childhood schizophrenia.
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The first signs of childhood schizophrenia are often social and developmental delays, including:
Childhood schizophrenia causes symptoms like schizophrenia in adults. Your child may have the following symptoms:
Childhood schizophrenia doesn’t have just one cause. Instead, experts believe that multiple factors interact with each other to bring about this condition. Schizophrenia tends to be hereditary (runs in families). Researchers have also found some other factors that may play a role in developing schizophrenia, including:
Childhood schizophrenia may cause difficulties throughout your child’s life and can affect:
There isn’t a cure for schizophrenia. Even when they’re an adult, your child may experience symptoms of schizophrenia. They need continuous treatment to help them live a safe, productive life.
Your child must have symptoms for more than six months for a healthcare provider to diagnose childhood schizophrenia. Schizophrenia in children is difficult to diagnose. Many healthy children have hallucinations or delusions. For example, a young child may talk to an imaginary friend, which is normal and healthy. Additionally, a variety of conditions can lead to symptoms of psychosis, including medical and psychiatric illnesses. Your child’s healthcare providers will want to rule out these conditions.
Developmental and psychiatric conditions
No single test can tell whether your child has schizophrenia. Psychiatrists diagnose childhood schizophrenia with a combination of mental and physical tests. To check for physical causes, your child’s psychiatrist may use:
Treatment for very early-onset schizophrenia depends on your child and the type and severity of their symptoms. Treatment usually includes therapy and education for both the child and their family. Depending on your child’s age, their provider may prescribe antipsychotic medications and sometimes, antidepressants to help control symptoms. At some point, many children with schizophrenia require hospitalization for their safety. They may also need to stay in the hospital from time to time if they’re unstable or as they start new medications.
In addition to medications, providers often recommend social skills training and counseling for the child and their family. Ongoing individual therapy helps children with schizophrenia learn coping skills. This support can help them maintain relationships and do better in school.
Some of the antipsychotics used to treat childhood schizophrenia can cause significant weight gain and heart issues. Your child’s healthcare provider will weigh the benefits of the treatment with the potential side effects before prescribing antipsychotics. Then, they’ll regularly check measures of your child’s health, including:
Your child’s healthcare provider is the best person to tell you how long it will take for medication and therapy to work. Different medications take different amounts of time before they have noticeable effects. Their provider can also let you know about other treatment options that might help if the first treatments don’t work well.
As there’s no single cause, childhood schizophrenia isn’t really preventable. But you can take steps to reduce your child’s risk.
To lower the risk that your child will have very early-onset schizophrenia, you can take the following steps:
It’s important to remember that even if you do everything right, there’s still a chance that your child will develop pediatric-onset schizophrenia. It’s not your fault.
Every child with schizophrenia is unique, and their symptoms will vary. Childhood schizophrenia symptoms may come on rather quickly. Or they may develop gradually, with your child getting more symptoms that get worse over time.
You’ll spend time organizing their medications, especially if they take more than one medication to manage their symptoms. You can expect frequent check-ins with your child’s psychiatrist. It might help to keep a journal of your child’s symptoms — and their eating and sleeping patterns — and take this record to each appointment.
Your child may need extra support at school, and your child’s care team can advise you on that as well. There may also be a lot of absences from school for appointments, so early and regular communication is key.
The outlook for children with schizophrenia depends on the severity of their symptoms. Many children with schizophrenia have a poor prognosis (outlook). But treatment improves long-term outcomes. You can help by ensuring that your child takes their medications as prescribed and follows up regularly with their care team.
Parenting a child with a mental health condition like childhood schizophrenia can be challenging. You want to do everything you can to set your child up for success, but it’s important to take care of yourself, too. Here are some ways to help take care of your child and get the support you need:
You should see your child’s care team as recommended. You should also see them if you notice a change in your child’s symptoms, like if they get worse even if they’re taking their medication. You can also see them if medication side effects disrupt your child’s life. Your child’s psychiatrist can sometimes recommend alternative medications or treatments that might better treat their condition without causing those effects.
If your child expresses thoughts of harming themself or others, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (U.S.). If you feel like your child is in immediate danger of harming themselves or others, call 911 (or your local emergency services number) or go to the nearest emergency room.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
You’re bound to have a lot of feelings when your child starts showing signs of a severe mental health condition like childhood schizophrenia. Your child’s behaviors might scare you. You might feel a sense of loss, wondering where the child you’ve known has gone, and if you’ll ever get to see them again. You might blame yourself (but it’s not your fault!). It’s also demanding to care for a child with a psychiatric disorder. Be sure to ask your child’s psychiatrist for recommendations for parenting classes, support groups and books so you’re as prepared as possible for what’s coming. Most people won’t understand what life is like in your house, so it’s very important for you to find people who do.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/30/2023.
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