The bad apple, the black sheep, the problem child; we have all known them, some of us might have even been one. They show a disregard for rules, they argue about everything, they don’t apply themselves at home or at school and often they are just unpleasant to be around. They can put stress on family and parent relationships, they can have a negative effect on their siblings’ mental health and they make life difficult for those who interact with them. Having a child with these issues is stressful even at the best of times and it is not surprising that many parents go to great lengths to try and curb these behaviors, to get the child back on the right path. But too often these methods try to assign responsibility for the behaviors to the child or the parent adding to the difficulties and the stress. “They just don’t care.” “They aren’t trying.” “We are doing something wrong.” What is often missing is an understanding of the Why, the reasoning behind the behaviors.
Children are not born “bad”. They are not born to break rules and defy authority. They are shaped that way. Studies have shown that the environment and their experiences have a very prominent impact on childhood development and functioning. The ACE study showed us that traumatic events in childhood greatly increased the risk of mental health issues, substance abuse and suicide many years after the event. (2) Traumatic events included things such as abuse, neglect, exposure to violence, exposure to substance abuse and even parental separation. Further studies are showing that things such as social rejection, bullying and negative experiences on social media all have correlation with increased risk of mental health symptoms. (1) It is currently estimated that almost 50% of children will have a diagnosable mental illness by the time they turn 18. (3) These issues can lead to behaviors such as mood swings, defiance, poor performance in school, substance abuse, self-harm and suicide. Often the children who get labeled as the bad kid are dealing with the impact of these experiences, often this is the Why behind the behaviors.
So what can we do to help these children? The first step is to talk with them, to break the stigma of mental health. As children mature and grow it is common for them to struggle with mood issues, with anxiety, with self-doubt. Most parents would say that they want to be aware of these things, that they want their children to let them know when they’re struggling but polls have shown that upwards of 40% of children may feel isolated without someone to confide in. (4) So instead of waiting, be proactive. Discuss mental health with your children, normalize the struggles we all endure in our lives. Let them know that there is a safe place they can share and explore these feelings. And if the issues persist or if they are not ready to have that conversation with you, find someone they are ready to talk to. This could be a friend, a family member, a teacher or a mental health professional. Sometimes we need someone outside of our circle to confide in, someone who is not connected to our lives.
A mental health professional is just that. Someone whose only connection is to provide a safe space to discuss our troubles. We don’t see them at work or school, they do not come to family gatherings, they aren’t in our group chats. We can go and bare our issues without fear of how those disclosures can impact our lives. For children, whose social circle is often a major aspect of their lives, this can be the difference between being “fine” and actually opening up to what they are experiencing. Mental health treatment can be a private experience, it can be a group experience or a combination of both. Likewise, it can involve therapy, medication, hospitalization, or any combination of these. The important thing is to find what works, what is meaningful, what helps. This is what mental health professionals are trained to do. To step back and look at the issues and guide us through the healing process. If you are struggling or know someone who is, don’t wait. Start the conversation now, find the Why and the What Then. And know we are here to help. Call: 702-608-1976 today!
Nicholas Hollister, MD
Nevada Regional Psychiatrist at Behavioral Health Solutions
(1) – Evans, C.B.R., Smokowski, P.R., Rose, R.A. et al. Cumulative Bullying Experiences, Adolescent Behavioral and Mental Health, and Academic Achievement: An Integrative Model of Perpetration, Victimization, and Bystander Behavior. J Child Fam Stud 28, 2415–2428 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-018-1078-4
(2) – Felitti, Vincent J.; Anda, Robert F.; Nordenberg, Dale; Williamson, David F.; Spitz, Alison M.; Edwards, Valerie; Koss, Mary P.; Marks, James S. (1998). “Adverse Childhood Experiences”. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 14 (4): 245–258. doi:10.1016/S0749-3797(98)00017-8. PMID 9635069.
(3) – Merikangas, K., Hep, J., Burstein, M., Swanson, S., Avenevoli, S., Cui, L., Benejet, C.,…Swendsen, J. (2010). Lifetime prevalence of mental disorders in U.S. adolescents: results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication—Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A). Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 49(10): 980-989. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2010.05.017.
(4) – The University of Manchester. (2018, October 01). The BBC Loneliness Experiment. https://www.seed.manchester.ac.uk/education/research/impact/bbc-loneliness-experiment