Everyone has an off day now and again. All of us experience moments in time when we’re feeling sad, angry, impulsive or even out-of-control – this is simply part of the human condition. However, when it comes to children and teens still working through emotional regulation, these occurrences may happen more frequently. So how can you tell if your child or teen is simply experiencing a regular developmental behavior or if they are exhibiting a key sign of mental illness? We spoke to Beth Confer, LPC and Director of Community Relations at Clarity Child Guidance Center to help us understand the difference.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with us on this important issue.
Beth Confer: Of course. When it comes to deciphering a child or teen’s behavior, you almost have to become a detective. It’s important to be able to recognize the warning signs. And the truth is, there isn’t often just one warning sign. It’s a combination of signs.
What’s the biggest issue that causes people not to recognize warning signs?
Beth Confer: The stigma of mental illness is generally what stops people from either recognizing some of the warning signs or prevents people from getting treatment for it. I’m talking about thoughts like: you must be a bad parent if your child has a mental illness or the fear that your child will be labeled. But the reality is that without treatment, specifically early treatment, the outcomes can be devastating, up to and including suicide.
So what are some of the warning signs?
Beth Confer: I won’t be able to list all the warning signs. But some of the major ones include behaviors and events that are not age or developmentally appropriate, repeated instances of these behaviors and events, a significant change in your child’s behavior or mood and anything that can be considered a “red flag”.
Can you give us a specific example?
Beth Confer: Yes, this is about a patient I will call “David.” David was 10 years old. His parents were divorced so he divided his time between his mother’s and his father’s houses. David’s parents were engaged in a bitter, contentious custody battle. They frequently placed David in the middle of their arguments and asked him to “report” on the other parent’s behavior during his visits. David began to cry with little provocation. He became excessively anxious about hurting other people’s feelings. He frequently complained of physical aches and pains like headaches and an upset stomach. He had trouble sleeping and said he couldn’t “turn off” his brain. He couldn’t sit still during class. He complained to his teachers that kids were picking on him but then became anxious that, for reporting the other kids misbehaviors, that the teacher would be angry with him. Eventually, he threatened to kill himself and was admitted to a psychiatric facility.
In this case what were warning signs that indicated David needed help?
Beth Confer: Well David had quite a few. First, he was anxious and worried a lot more than others his age. He worried about doing something “bad” and he was extremely fearful. His racing thoughts, his inability to focus attention and sit still are all warning signs, as well as his inability to sleep.
We’re glad David got the help he needed. If there are other parents out there that recognize some warning signs in their child or teen what should they do?
Beth Confer: Well, any suicidal or homicidal thoughts or attempts require immediate attention. Call 911 or get them to be seen immediately for an evaluation. If they’re in distress but not in crisis, they will need to be assessed by a clinician for the appropriate level of care and referrals. If the child is in treatment, but not improving, parents should talk with the therapist/psychiatrist about their concerns.
Thank you, Beth Confer.
Beth Confer: Thank you.