As the incidence of mental health conditions continues to rise, it is crucial to becoming aware of potential difficulties your children may face. Recognizing the signs of a mental health disorder in your child is key to being able to help them receive the support they need to lead a happy and fulfilling life.
What is Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a serious mental health condition that alters an individual’s thoughts, behaviors, and ability to interact with others. It is characterized by the presence of psychotic symptoms (such as hallucinations and delusions) and what is known as negative symptoms (withdrawal from others, loss of motivation, and difficulties with daily functioning). People living with schizophrenia also commonly experience cognitive challenges with sustaining focus, processing information, and decision making. Schizophrenia can make carrying out daily tasks and maintaining personal relationships difficult.
There is no singular cause of schizophrenia. However, there are various risk factors that may contribute to the development of schizophrenia including genetics, differences in brain structure, and trauma/abuse. For more information about schizophrenia, visit Mind Diagnostics.
Onset of Schizophrenia
While the average onset of schizophrenia tends to be between the late teens-early 20s for men and late 20s-early 30s for women, it is possible for symptoms to emerge earlier. That being said, it is extremely rare for a child younger than 13 years old to be diagnosed with schizophrenia. A schizophrenia diagnosis that occurs before the age of 18 is considered early-onset schizophrenia.
Signs of Schizophrenia in Children & Adolescents
Though the diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia are the same for both children and adults, there are some unique differences in the way schizophrenia presents in children and adolescents. The following are warning signs of early-onset schizophrenia to look out for:
Delays in speech/language, motor, and social development
Developmental warning signs can be observed in young children. However, it is important to note that these developmental delays are not exclusive to schizophrenia, and may be indicative of another condition entirely.
The presence of hallucinations and/or delusions
Hallucinations are defined by hearing voices or seeing things that are not real. Auditory hallucinations have been found to be the most common among youth with schizophrenia. However, a child may be hesitant to report it as they may fear harm due to what the ‘voices’ are telling them. It is also important to recognize that for young children, hallucinations can be anxiety-induced and not linked to psychosis. Delusions may also occur, which are false beliefs that are held regardless of the evidence proving otherwise.
Social withdrawal and lack of motivation
Children with early-onset schizophrenia commonly experience severe negative symptoms. They typically isolate themselves from others, have difficulty carrying out daily tasks and keeping up with personal hygiene, which may mirror symptoms typically associated with depression.
Sudden or gradual shifts in mood, behavior, or personality
A significant warning sign of schizophrenia is if a child suddenly starts having unusual thoughts and ideas, or speaking in a way that does not make sense. They may undergo personality changes or noticeable shifts in mood. A child with schizophrenia is likely to experience increased anxiety or fearfulness, paranoia, agitation, or confusion. Another common symptom is what is known as a ‘flat affect’ or lack of emotional expression.
Difficulties in school
A change in a child’s academic performance and cognitive abilities may be an indication of an underlying mental health disorder. Children who have schizophrenia typically experience difficulties with concentration, retaining information, and completing tasks. Their teachers may recognize a significant difference in the child’s behavior and engagement at school.
It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish whether symptoms are indicative of schizophrenia or of another condition such as autism spectrum disorders. Both schizophrenia and autism can present similarly in children as they tend to be socially withdrawn and display unusual patterns of communication. Other conditions that are commonly confused with schizophrenia include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depressive disorders with psychosis.
What to Do If You Notice Warning Signs
If you notice early warning signs of schizophrenia in your child, it is important to discuss your concerns with a doctor or mental health professional. While schizophrenia does not have a cure, there are ways to manage the illness that reduces the severity of symptoms and their impact on daily functioning.
Treatment of schizophrenia in children typically looks like a combination of medication, psychotherapy, and support groups. They may also benefit from specialized programs that offer training in social skills, personal hygiene and offer support with daily responsibilities.
Early diagnosis and treatment have been shown to be crucial in the success of treatment for schizophrenia. As soon as you begin to notice any concerning changes in your child, reach out in order to get them the support they need as soon as possible. While living with schizophrenia is often challenging, it is possible to learn to manage symptoms and live a fulfilling life.