Is it Difficult Behavior, or is it Mental Illness?

Why would a mom hide a scissors and a Boy Scout Camp jackknife in her closet?

If you’ve had a child diagnosed with a mental illness, you may understand why. 

I have four kids. With my first 2 kids,  I walked around thinking I was pretty good at this whole parenting thing. They listened, they were respectful, they didn’t destroy things, they were kind, they made normal-sized kid messes. They weren’t perfect by any means, but I didn’t question my ability to parent them repeatedly, on a daily basis.  

And then I had a third child. I remember once when he could barely crawl, he was holding his hand behind his head and I thought, “What’s is he doing? Oh my gosh he’s going to HIT!” He had never even seen hitting at that age. He literally just came out swinging. 

Difficult Behavior or Something More?

But still as a young child, his behavior was never so extreme that we couldn’t manage it. My husband and I took multiple parenting classes, we had a godsend of a daycare provider, and school went mostly fine; nothing abnormal noted. I referred to him as “tricky.” His psychologist later referred to him as having “stinker behavior.”  

With age 13 knocking on his door, the behaviors escalated.

It was no longer a cute story to share about his stinker behavior; it was utterly embarrassing. Limits were not being accepted. He’d certainly yell and scream and carry on when I set limits before. Was this the same? I found myself scared and nervous to set limits and corresponding consequences that I had easily delivered with the other kids, and with him before this. 

First, a hole punched in a wall.

Then a well-being questionnaire filled out on his yearly physical that made me want to throw up. Then more destruction in the house when screen limits were set and enforced.

I found myself telling my younger daughter to stay away from him when they were home alone. In the moments of arguing and refusal to do chores and the constant lying and obsession with screens and refusal to accept limits on screens, I would wonder, “Is this just crappy behavior? Is this puberty for a ‘tricky’ kid?”  

From Difficult Behavior to Mental Illness Diagnosis

The shift from “stinker behavior” to mood disorder came on just slowly enough for me not to notice how abnormal it had become.

Years ago, a friend had told me how she would take the knife block to work in her trunk when her son, who was suffering from mental illness, was home without her. I thought, “Well if I ever have to do that, it will be so obvious it’s mental illness and not just crappy behavior.

But it wasn’t obvious.

I would sit in the parking lot at work in the mornings and cry, wondering what he might do while I was gone. He would yell at me, and tell me he felt so bad and destroyed things because I didn’t trust him. Because I didn’t allow him to have freedom, gave unfair consequences, and set too many screen limits. And I wondered, was he right? 

It turned out that this was more than just difficult behavior. It was mental illness.

And I had done nothing to cause it. And there was nothing I alone could do to fix it. Only psychologists, psychiatrists, and physicians could distinguish between “stinker behavior” and mood disorder. Only those providers could rule out other conditions such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, ADHD, etc. to diagnose the depression. And only those providers could convince me to keep up with the limits and the consequences.

As I was cleaning my closet six months after the worst of the depression had passed, I found those items I had hidden. I took a photo to remind myself how bad it was.

When you don’t trust your 12 year-old to have a scissors, there is much more going on than “stinker behavior.”

Moving Forward

We’re on the other side of things now. He went to Boy Scout camp, with his jackknife in tow. He has a scissors in his room. He doesn’t like limits, but he accepts them without destroying our house. He accepts consequences without my wondering if he’ll self-harm. He can be a jerk to his siblings, but I don’t question their safety. He still requires 80% more parenting effort in every single interaction compared to his siblings. He’s still partaking in more “stinker behavior” than I care to deal with, but it’s not frightening. 

Wondering if your own child has “stinker behavior” or a pathological condition? A discussion with your pediatrician is a great place to start. Most clinics give a mental health questionnaire at 12-year check-ups (although children won’t always answer those honestly if they are looking to avoid consequences). Discuss with your doctor, and find a mental health provider that can help your child. Not only do psychologists help your child, but they can help you parent through this very difficult time.  

Fore more information on how to handle a difficult child or teen, see Reinforcing the Positive: How Praise Can Transform Difficult Behavior.


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