Schizoaffective disorder is a complex combination of schizophrenia and mood disorders, and difficult to diagnose because of overlapping symptoms. Each child’s symptoms are unique and morph over time. A parent must recognize the symptoms and discover how to reduce their impact… and distinguish them from typical troubled teen behavior.
I raised a teen with schizoaffective disorder who began hallucinating at age eleven but never reported it. She assumed it happened to everyone. I wasn’t aware for three years until she couldn’t hold it together anymore, and her A+ grades turned all F’s. She claimed words moved on the blackboard and voices drowned out the teacher. As symptoms progressed, she believed she was magical and superior to others. I also observed rebelliousness and suicidal thoughts.
Common symptom types
- Hallucinations, voices, paranoia, and enchanted beliefs, such as love connections with celebrities. She told stories of life as a queen for 1000 years, and described it in extraordinary detail. She made accusations that I was trying to control her mind.
- Depressive: suicidal thoughts and negativity. My child darkened her room and slept all day in piles of dirty clothes, and got angry if disturbed.
- Bipolar: She sometimes never slept, and she described light speed thinking: “it’s like the TV’s on, the radio’s on, the stereo’s on, you’re talking to me, I’m reading a book, and can’t not think about every single thing.”
Lessons I learned that may help your schizoaffective child
- Maintain a low key home environment. Reduce noise, harsh tones of voice, and frenetic activity.
- Trust is everything. Build trust between you by asking for their opinions and needs, and responding to the ones that are realistic. Trust helps you help them to accept mental health treatment. It helps you prevent them from trusting inappropriate ideas or people that negatively influence their vulnerable mind.
- Don’t challenge your teen's experiences even if they are strange. Just keep them safe and in treatment.
- Avoid reasoning or justifying yourself, which absolutely does not work. Listen attentively without offering opinions. Spend quality time listening like you would any child.
- Act on references to harm to themselves, others, or property—this may be typical teenage manipulation, but don’t take the chance.
- Allow your child to talk comfortably about their feelings and inner experiences. You want to know if a voice or feeling may lead to harm, an explosion, or a nose dive.
- “Inoculate” your child from cruel voices or intolerable anxiety--teach them to deny the power of a negative voice or feeling.Example: “I know you can’t stop [this voice or feeling] from bothering you, but it's OK to stand up to its bullying. Give the voice or feeling an insulting name to diminish its power in your child’s mind.
- Learn how to calm your child. Use a quiet and patient demeanor, affirm his or her feelings, show empathy, and don’t lecture. Then change the subject to prevent ruminating.
- Help your child avoid overstimulation from people or places they dislike. Go out of your way. Your goal is lowering stress, and modeling what they need to do to take care of themselves in the future.
- Ask your child what they need to calm down. This could be anything--pleasant or ghastly music, curling up under a blanket, or taking a walk.
- Ask for appropriate behavior. It’s possible to set a boundary if you are specific about the rule, but don’t justify yourself or reason—reasoning doesn’t work with irrational children. Examples: Anger is OK if not abusive of self or others. Fear is OK if they choose a safe reaction.
- Difficult behavior is not always caused by the disorder because part of your child is like other difficult teens. Expect defiance and manipulation.
Schizoaffective disorder is lifetime and disabling, but your child can eventually recover and learn to manage their mental health on their own. Long-term family support is essential so prepare for a marathon. Take care of yourself because it may be years before your child can function on their own and reach that place of wellbeing.