Mental illness rarely first occurs as a full-blown disorder, short of a traumatic experience. There are usually warning signs and red flags that can alert parents that their child’s mental well-being may be at risk.
The Mental Health Alliance of America (MHAA) recently designated these signs as “risky business” because engaging in them is not just a warning sign that something is amiss. They can also be a threat to your child’s continued mental health and his or her physical well-being. Recognizing these risky behaviors can help identify a problem before it becomes more difficult to treat, and before any long-term or permanent damage has been done.
Defining Risky Business as Opposed to Normal Kid Stuff
Key indicators of risky business are obsession and compulsion. They can also be symptoms of an underlying mental health condition, for example, an expression of the manic phase of a bi-polar disorder. To make matters more complex, not every obsessive behavior is self-destructive. So, how to distinguish between a child’s enthusiasm for sports, and an unhealthy addiction to exercise, for example? A quiz created by MHAA can help you decide when a behavior has gone too far.
Some risky behaviors to note include:
- Compulsive shopping
- Compulsive exercising
- Internet addiction (particularly pornography)
Defining Risky Business that Isn’t Kid Stuff
Most children at some point in their lives are tempted by “forbidden fruit,” especially if that fruit makes them feel grown-up and/or cool. It’s a common issue between parents and children in their adolescence. The MHAA quiz can put your mind to ease, at least about mental illness, if you catch your engaging in a questionable activity, it may be time to intervene.
Behaviors to note in this category:
- Compulsive sexual activity, particularly with a variety of partners and failing to use protection.
- Drug and/or alcohol abuse or misuse
How Far is Too Far?
The MHAA offers a downloadable tool kit as a valuable resource in taking those first steps to getting help for your child. The most important thing to remember? Getting the needed help is not an admission of failure on your part as a parent, any more than seeking out antibiotics to help when your child has a virus. It should not, however, be your only step. Consult with your primary care physician to rule out any physical problems that may be causing the risky business behavior. Once that’s been ruled out, have your physician recommend trusted mental health resources. As always, active listening is a great way to gauge your child’s state of mind, as well as one of the best ways to provide your child with the safe and non-judgmental environment.
You’re Not Alone
One in five kids will experience an emotional, behavioral or mental illness. Mental and emotional problems in children are not uncommon, but many times families cannot manage on their own. The use of shame, anger and threats can be counter-productive. Instead direct and honest conversations, clear boundaries and consequences are important as you work on a plan to get help.
With an eye to the best for our kids,
Michele Autenrieth Brown is the director of development for Clarity Child Guidance Center. She became passionate mental health advocate after trying to navigate the system of care to support a family member. When she is not shuttling kids to practices or spending time with her husband, Michele is perfecting just what to say to get the perfect eye roll and sigh from her teen and pre-teen children.
If you are experiencing an emergency, please call 9-1-1. If you need help locating mental health resources in your area, call your local health department or the National Alliance Mental Illness's helpline at 800-950- NAMI (6264).