Schizophrenia in children requires lifelong treatment, even during periods when symptoms seem to go away. Treatment is a particular challenge for children with schizophrenia.
Childhood schizophrenia treatment is usually guided by a child psychiatrist experienced in treating schizophrenia. The team approach may be available in clinics with expertise in schizophrenia treatment. The team may include, for example, your:
- Psychiatrist, psychologist or other therapist
- Psychiatric nurse
- Social worker
- Family members
- Case manager to coordinate care
Main treatment options
The main treatments for childhood schizophrenia are:
- Life skills training
Most of the antipsychotics used in children are the same as those used for adults with schizophrenia. Antipsychotic drugs are often effective at managing symptoms such as delusions, hallucinations, loss of motivation and lack of emotion.
In general, the goal of treatment with antipsychotics is to effectively manage symptoms at the lowest possible dose. Over time, your child's doctor may try combinations, different medications or different doses. Depending on the symptoms, other medications also may help, such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs. It can take several weeks after starting a medication to notice an improvement in symptoms.
Newer, second-generation medications are generally preferred because they have fewer side effects than do first-generation antipsychotics. However, they can cause weight gain, high blood sugar, high cholesterol and heart disease.
Examples of second-generation antipsychotics approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat schizophrenia in teenagers age 13 and older include:
- Aripiprazole (Abilify)
- Olanzapine (Zyprexa)
- Quetiapine (Seroquel)
- Risperidone (Risperdal)
Paliperidone (Invega) is FDA-approved for children 12 years of age and older.
These first-generation medications are usually as effective as second-generation antipsychotics in controlling delusions and hallucinations. In addition to having side effects similar to those of second-generation antipsychotics, first-generation antipsychotics also may have frequent and potentially significant neurological side effects. These can include the possibility of developing a movement disorder (tardive dyskinesia) that may or may not be reversible.
Because of the increased risk of serious side effects with first-generation antipsychotics, they often aren't recommended for use in children until other options have been tried without success.
Examples of first-generation antipsychotics approved by the FDA to treat schizophrenia in children and teens include:
- Chlorpromazine for children 13 and older
- Haloperidol for children 3 years and older
- Perphenazine for children 12 years and older
First-generation antipsychotics are often cheaper than second-generation antipsychotics, especially the generic versions, which can be an important consideration when long-term treatment is necessary.
Medication side effects and risks
All antipsychotic medications have side effects and possible health risks, some life-threatening. Side effects in children and teenagers may not be the same as those in adults, and sometimes they may be more serious. Children, especially very young children, may not have the capacity to understand or communicate about medication problems.
Talk to your child's doctor about possible side effects and how to manage them. Be alert for problems in your child, and report side effects to the doctor as soon as possible. The doctor may be able to adjust the dose or change medications and limit side effects.
Also, antipsychotic medications can have dangerous interactions with other substances. Tell your child's doctor about all medications and over-the-counter products your child takes, including vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements.
In addition to medication, psychotherapy, sometimes called talk therapy, can help manage symptoms and help you and your child cope with the disorder. Psychotherapy may include:
- Individual therapy. Psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, with a skilled mental health professional can help your child learn ways to deal with the stress and daily life challenges brought on by schizophrenia. Therapy can help reduce symptoms and help your child make friends and succeed at school. Learning about schizophrenia can help your child understand the condition, cope with symptoms and stick to a treatment plan.
- Family therapy. Your child and your family may benefit from therapy that provides support and education to families. Involved, caring family members who understand childhood schizophrenia can be extremely helpful to children living with this condition. Family therapy can also help you and your family to improve communication, work out conflicts and cope with stress related to your child's condition.
Life skills training
Treatment plans that include building life skills can help your child function at age-appropriate levels when possible. Skills training may include:
- Social and academic skills training. Training in social and academic skills is an important part of treatment for childhood schizophrenia. Children with schizophrenia often have troubled relationships and school problems. They may have difficulty carrying out normal daily tasks, such as bathing or dressing.
- Vocational rehabilitation and supported employment. This focuses on helping people with schizophrenia prepare for, find and keep jobs.
During crisis periods or times of severe symptoms, hospitalization may be necessary. This can help ensure your child's safety and make sure that he or she is getting proper nutrition, sleep and hygiene. Sometimes the hospital setting is the safest and best way to get symptoms under control quickly.
Partial hospitalization and residential care may be options, but severe symptoms are usually stabilized in the hospital before moving to these levels of care.