Childhood Schizophrenia. When nine-year-old Terra heard a voice telling her that her parents wanted to harm and “get rid of” her, she immediately phoned her grandparents‘ house in tears. Listening to Terra’s strange story, her grandmother was at a loss. Miriam’s other three grandchildren had all had imaginary playmates at one time or another, but these had always been described as friendly. And the incidents had stopped by the time the children were four or five at the most. What was wrong with Terra? And what should Miriam do about it?
Childhood schizophrenia can be difficult to detect in elementary school-age children because of youngsters frequently make up stories or role-play. When do things cross the line between active imagination and a more serious condition? Know the signs of schizophrenia and whether or not you should be concerned.
What is Childhood Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is defined as a mental disorder meeting two or more criteria as outlined in the DSM-IV, a psychiatric resource. These criteria include delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, certain types of disorganized behaviors (such as dressing inappropriately), and lack of or decline in speech, as well as other symptoms. Schizophrenics don’t see the world the way the rest of us do, and condition can be terrifying for the person suffering from it, as well as for concerned family members and friends.
Schizophrenia in children includes basic schizophrenia symptoms but has an earlier onset than traditionally expected. According to experts, childhood schizophrenia is rare, affecting approximately 1 in 40,000 children under the age of 13 (compared to 1 in 100 adults).
Though this number is reassuring, it can also make a diagnosis of schizophrenia with children take longer than with a teen or young adult, as certain aspects of it may be confused for another condition or simply for “imagination”, “childlike play” or “looking for attention“. The causes of this condition are probably complex, but in some families there seems to be an inherited component (though not in all cases).
How Can I Know if My Child has Schizophrenia?
Most cases of imaginary friends or telling stories in early childhood are just that. But if your school-age child develops any of the following, call her pediatrician and ask for an appointment to discuss your concerns:
- The child is experiencing hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there).
- The child has delusions (obviously incorrect or nonsensical beliefs).
- The child’s thinking is extremely disorganized/scattered/irrational.
- The child is either excessively mobile (NOT include hyperactivity/ADHD) or has become immobile or catatonic.
- He has stopped communicating with others or communicates very minimally with others.
- The child is unable to make and/or follow through with plans.
According to experts, childhood schizophrenia typically begins gradually rather than with a single “episode”. Eventually, however, the episode will happen. This may be an extremely disruptive, illogical, paranoid, and/or inappropriate behavior or set of behaviors.
If you suspect a child you love has schizophrenia, don’t wait. Consult her pediatrician for a referral on a psychiatrist familiar with the condition for an assessment. Remember, the child may have some other illness, possibly of a temporary nature. Don’t let fears get in the way of seeking an answer.
In the case that childhood schizophrenia may be detected, medication may help. (Drugs such as Risperdal are currently approved beginning age 13; ask the doctor for advice on medications for younger children if s/he is recommending this form of treatment). Psychotherapy and social behavior programs may also be recommended to supplement drug therapy, or maybe be tried in place of it.
Most of all, don’t be afraid to reach out to others. Schizophrenia is a frightening word; knowledge is key to unlocking the misinformation and beginning treatment that can help guide your child toward a better future.
I hope this article on childhood schizophrenia has been helpful.