How common is psychosis in children?

The number of children suffering from a psychotic disorder is extremely difficult to determine. Psychosis in children can be mistaken for a variety of other things, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, or even a normal stage of development. Most disorders, notably schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are thought to begin primarily in adulthood. Although the onset of these conditions in childhood is recognized, it is believed to be a relatively rare event, although it is likely that many children are misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all.

Psychosis in children was once thought to be extremely rare. Treatments are mainly tailored to adult patients, although it is recognized that the number of cases diagnosed in young children and adolescents is increasing. In fact, up to seven percent of all children receiving treatment in a psychiatric hospital are thought to have a psychotic disorder. Bipolar disorder is the most common, although children have been known to suffer from schizophrenia and other disorders as well.

Many cases of psychosis in children are misdiagnosed as ADHD or autism, because children with mental disorders often exhibit many of the same symptoms. Other children may not be diagnosed at all because during childhood it is common for children to exhibit behaviors that would not be appropriate as adults. Diagnosis is sometimes not made until a child is unable to snap out of such behaviors. For example, a child who talks to imaginary people can be considered normal, although this is sometimes a sign of schizophrenia.

There is a big difference in the illusions created by a normal child and the hallucinations experienced by one who is schizophrenic. The healthy child controls his images, develops his personality, and his imaginary friends only do what he wants them to do. Those of the schizophrenic child are beyond his control and may even tell him to do things that he doesn't want to do.

However, psychosis in children is relatively uncommon, even with children misdiagnosed and underdiagnosed. The average age for the onset of symptoms is usually between the late teens and early thirties, depending on the disorder. However, children may exhibit some bizarre behavior early on, which can escalate into psychosis later in life. It is not fully understood whether warning signs can be detected and then treated with early interventions.

Parents must remember to listen to their children. Even if a particular symptom seems normal, if the child seems uncomfortable or restless, she should talk to someone. Mood swings, irritability, and trouble sleeping are all normal parts of growing up. However, when they become excessive or bothersome to the child, further evaluation is needed.

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