Misbehavior versus psychiatric illness in children
Dr. James P. Perry Contributing Columnist
Children can misbehave at any given time. That is a fact of life. Curiosity is their job. It helps their brains to form and learn.
Misbehavior can be a child’s way of testing a parent.
Are rules set in stone? Does a child lose something important (i.e. special privileges) if he breaks a rule? If not, then the lesson learned is that rules do not have to be followed. Appropriate consequences are a necessary response to children’s misbehavior.
Are boundaries firm or flexible? If reasonable consequences are experienced every time a boundary is not respected, then a child will eventually learn not to cross boundaries.
Does a child get his way by throwing fits? If parents give in just to “keep the peace” then they will most likely find themselves with a chronic fit-thrower on their hands.
Should a child’s life lessons lead to patterns of misbehavior, he may become prone to acting out and this can lead to a patterned behavior disorder. These are also psychological conditions brought about by biological factors and environmental experiences that lead to problematic behaviors.
It is important to know the difference because behavior disorders and psychiatric illness are different in nature and require different treatment responses. Both can severely disrupt a child’s life academically, emotionally, and socially.
Learn the warning signs before serious problems escalate or become life-threatening. With psychiatric illness you may see severe mood swings; unexplainable feelings of intense worry or fear; out-of-control behaviors; difficulty concentrating; or unexplained weight loss.
Be aware of patterns of hostility, aggression, or disruptive tendencies that last for more than six months.
Actions may include threatening or harming themselves, other people or pets; destroying or damaging property; habitual stealing or lying; school truancy or poor grades; substance use or abuse; early sexual activity; frequent tantrums and arguments; or regular hostility towards authority figures.
It can sometimes be difficult for parents to differentiate between childhood antics and mental health issues that threaten a child’s well-being. If unsure or in doubt, the best course of action is to discuss the situation with your child’s doctor.
If childhood misbehavior is afoot, the solution could be as easy as helping parents to set and enforce limits. However, if a psychiatric illness is the problem, professional help will be needed so that parents can explore treatment options that can turn the tide and help their child to thrive.
Dr. James Perry, Ph.D., is CEO of Mental Health Services for Madison County, located at 210 N. Main St. in London; (740) 852-6256; www.MHSMC.org.
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