Understanding the signs of schizophrenia in your teen, and what onset looks like, can help you help them.

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Teens go through a lot of big emotional and physical changes — so as a parent, you might find yourself wondering if certain behaviors are from hormones, school, social groups, or if something more serious is going on.

Schizophrenia is a mental health condition that can affect someone’s behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. If you’re concerned your teen might be showing signs of schizophrenia, learning more can give you the insight to take next steps.

You can develop schizophrenia at any age. But according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), it’s not commonly diagnosed in kids under 12 years old, or in adults over age 40.

On average, schizophrenia onset usually occurs:

  • in the late teens for males
  • in the late 20s to early 30s in females

In the media, those with schizophrenia are often sensationalized — depicted as hearing voices and talking to themselves. But not everyone with schizophrenia displays these behaviors.

Signs and symptoms unrelated to psychosis typically show up in teens gradually. According to 2017 research, this is referred to as the prodromal period.

Symptoms noticed during this time can be mistaken for depression, and vary in severity from mild to severe. Signs and symptoms might include:

  • a drop in academic performance
  • sleep challenges
  • socially withdrawing from friends and family
  • a disinterest in things they used to be interested in
  • lacking personal hygiene or self-care
  • difficulty concentrating
  • changes in speech or having no expression when talking
  • suspicion of loved ones or other paranoid thinking, such as the FBI is following them
  • unusual thoughts

Psychosis symptoms in teenagers

Psychosis occurs when someone experiences a disconnect from reality and has unusual thoughts and perceptions. People with schizophrenia often have episodes of psychosis.

Signs and symptoms of psychosis include:

  • hallucinations (hearing, seeing, tasting, or believing things that others don’t)
  • delusions (beliefs that aren’t true, such as believing you have superpowers)
  • intense paranoia and mistrust
  • jumbled speech and seemingly disorganized thoughts
  • intense emotions or not expressing any emotions
  • noticeable absence of gesturing
  • self-isolating
  • expressing thoughts of suicide

There isn’t one cause of schizophrenia in teens — or anyone. A combination of both genetics and environmental factors are thought to be at the root of it.

One 2017 study suggests that your chances of developing schizophrenia are more than 6 times higher if you have a close family member, like a parent or sibling, with the condition.

But other 2017 research suggests stress during developmental phases may trigger inherited traits.

Having an autoimmune disease may also contribute to the onset of schizophrenia, as well as environmental factors such as being exposed to certain viruses before birth.

Additionally, researchers in 2017 say that taking mind-altering drugs as a teen or young adult can increase the risk of schizophrenia, and that cannabis use can contribute to ongoing episodes of psychosis.

Reading a list of symptoms can be one thing, but sometimes it can help to see real-life examples.

Summer R. Thompson, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner with Community Psychiatry and MindPath Care Centers in Napa, California, shared some real-life experiences of how schizophrenia developed in a few teen patients.

High school teen

A high schooler suddenly became disinterested in school and sports, although they’d been on a varsity team for 2 years and planned on playing sports in college.

“The adolescent noticed a strange buzzing in their ears and after seeing an audiologist it was determined that they didn’t have a hearing issue,” Thompson says.

“Their parents noticed that the teen didn’t seem to have any facial expressions anymore and was very ‘blank looking,’” she explains.

Thompson describes, “Over a year, the teen stopped completing schoolwork, experienced worsening grades, retreated into social isolation, and started hearing voices before being diagnosed with schizophrenia.”

College teen

A high-achieving teen attended college and initially did well, but suddenly stopped attending classes.

“Their friends stated that the person seemed to have been acting very differently over the past few months and didn’t want to participate in activities and just seemed ‘odd,’” Thompson says.

“When asked if they were depressed, the patient denied depression and [said they] just didn’t care about the school anymore,” she adds.

They stopped caring about hygiene and became obsessed with a fellow student, believing they were destined to marry. Not long after, the student dropped out of school and was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Young adult

The parents of a young adult were told by their kid’s employer that they stopped attending work.

“The young adult stated that they believed that they would continue getting paid even if they didn’t go to work because they were ‘special,’” says Thompson.

“The parents noted that their adult child’s speech had changed dramatically from being very excited about a variety of different topics and able to talk about them at length, to now seeming disconnected and not talking about much of anything anymore,” she says.

The person later developed delusions and was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

While it may be hard to think your teen might have schizophrenia, there are many treatments available to help them manage and live well with the condition.

Options include:

In addition to the treatment options listed above, Coordinated Specialty Care (CSC) is an approach used to treat those with schizophrenia. This method involves healthcare professionals working together to encourage family and peer support, as well as help with employment.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers an Early Serious Mental Illness (ESMI) Treatment Locator, which can connect you and your teen to CSC programs.