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Schizophrenia in Children and Adolescents


Josephine Elia

, MD, Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University

Last full review/revision Apr 2021| Content last modified Apr 2021
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Schizophrenia is the presence of hallucinations and delusions causing considerable psychosocial dysfunction and lasting 6 months.

(See also Schizophrenia in adults.)

Onset of schizophrenia is typically from mid-adolescence to the mid-30s, with a peak age of onset in the 20s. Features in adolescents and young adults are similar. Schizophrenia in prepubertal children (childhood-onset schizophrenia), in which symptoms similar to those of the adolescent/young adult-onset form develop before age 13, is extremely rare (1).

Although the first episode usually occurs in young adults, some contributory neurodevelopmental events and experiences occur earlier (eg, during the perinatal period).

These perinatal risk factors include the following:

  • Genetic disorders (particularly those that increase risk of childhood onset)

  • Exposure to certain drugs or substances (eg, cannabis) during a vulnerable period

  • Prenatal undernutrition

  • Labor complications, hypoxia, perinatal infection, placental abruption or insufficiency

  • Childhood brain injury

Other risk factors, which occur later (eg, drug use later in adolescence), may then trigger the onset of schizophrenia.

Manifestations of childhood-onset schizophrenia are usually similar to those in adolescents and adults, but delusions and visual hallucinations (which may be more common among children) may be less elaborate. Additional characteristics also help distinguish childhood-onset schizophrenia from the adolescent/young adult form (1):

  • More severe symptoms

  • A strong family history

  • Increased prevalence of genetic abnormalities, developmental abnormalities (eg, pervasive developmental disorder, intellectual disability), and motor abnormalities

  • Increased prevalence of premorbid social difficulties

  • Insidious onset

  • Cognitive deterioration

  • Neuroanatomic changes (progressive loss of cortical gray matter volume, increase in ventricular volume)

Sudden-onset psychosis in young children should always be treated as a medical emergency with a thorough medical assessment to search for a physiologic cause of the mental status change; these causes include (2) the following:

  • Therapeutic drugs (eg, stimulants, corticosteroids, anticholinergics)

  • Recreational drugs (eg, cannabis)

  • Central nervous system (CNS) disorders, including infection (viral, bacterial, parasitic), tumors, demyelinating diseases, injury, seizures, or migraines

  • Autoimmune disorders (eg, anti-NMDA [N-methyl-d-aspartate] receptor encephalitis [3], SLE)

  • Endocrinopathies (eg, hyperthyroidism, hypocortisolemia)

  • Sleep disorders

  • Metabolic disorders (porphyria, Wilson disease, GM2 gangliosidosis)

  • Lysosomal storage diseases

  • Nutritional deficiencies (magnesium and vitamins A, D, B1, B3, B12)

  • Chromosomal abnormalities (22.11q, XXY, XO, fragile X, Prader-Willi, Fahr's Dis)

Recent research indicates that there is an increased risk of developing certain psychotic disorders (namely, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) among adolescents who use cannabis products containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC; 4). This increased risk is not explained by genetic factors. There is concern that the recent legalization of marijuana may give adolescents (and their parents) a false sense of security about the safety of this common recreational drug.

Treatment of schizophrenia in children and adolescents is complex, with variable outcomes, and referral to a child and adolescent psychiatrist is strongly recommended.


  • 1. Driver D, Thomas S, Gogtay N, et al: Childhood-onset schizophrenia and early-onset schizophrenia spectrum disorders: An update. Child Adolesc Psychiatric Clinic N Am29(1):71-90, 2020. doi: 10.1016/j.chc.2019.08.017

  • 2. Skikic M, Arriola JA: First episode psychosis medical workup: Evidence-informed recommendations and introduction to a clinically guided approach. 29(1):15-28, 2020. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. doi: 10.1016/j.chc.2019.08.010

  • 3. Dalmau J, Lancaster EL, Martinez-Hernandez E, et al: Clinical experience and laboratory investigations in patients with anti-NMDAR encephalitis. Lancet Neurol 10(1):63-74, 2011. doi: 10.1016/S1474-4422(10)70253-2

  • 4. Di Forti M, Quattrone D, Freeman TP, et al: The contribution of cannabis use to variation in the incidence of psychotic disorder across Europe (EU-GEI): A multicentre case-control study. Lancet 6:427-436, 2019.

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