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What We Miss When We Assume Aggressive Kids Are 'Bad Kids'

Mental illness can wreak havoc on the minds of those who live with it. Too often, caregivers and parents are left with more questions than answers on a journey that doesn’t have a map or resources.

As a parent, there’s nothing worse than seeing your child hurting and not being able to do anything about it, especially if that hurting looks like scary and unfamiliar behaviors such as self-injury, suicidal thoughts or aggression. Dealing with a child who sometimes gets aggressive, as a parent, caregiver or educator, is exhausting and can have traumatic impacts on the child, other children and adults involved. It can also leave the child with aggressive behaviors feeling guilt and self-hate, creating even more confusion and frustration.

Aggression can be complex, but it may stem from a child who lacks emotional regulation, the skills to understand and communicate feelings, and the ability to soothe their very overwhelmed, out-of-control brain. In the mental health community, we sometimes refrain from discussing aggression out of fear it will further stigmatize an already stigmatized medical condition, but it’s important to recognize how aggression can actually be a symptom of a completely dysfunctional mental health system not meeting the needs of children or those trying to care for them.

An aggressive child is not a bad child. To assume so is a dangerous oversimplification of a very complicated issue in need of sustainable systems of prevention and response strategies.

Still today, too many people have minimal to no education on mental illness, which prevents people from understanding the complexity of mental health. People are left to assume
that depression or anxiety happens to someone else or someone else’s kid, not them or their kid. It makes people positive that an irritable child has to be disrespectful rather than overwhelmed with anxiety. A child that destroys property must be poorly raised and is just choosing to destroy bedrooms and classrooms.

These narratives can destroy the mental health of parents already in an uphill battle trying to find help for their child, all while combatting an oversimplified narrative of parental neglect and incompetence.

Students spend a majority of their awake time at school with educators who may have come into the profession with little to no training on mental illness. Statistically, in a classroom of 20 students, three to four students have a mental illness and even more have been exposed to multiple forms of trauma. The lack of preparation leaves schools and teachers unprepared and ill-equipped to meet the needs of many students. This doesn’t even address that statistically, similar numbers of adults are bringing their own mental illnesses and traumas into schools, too. Teaching is a serving profession with many wanting to teach to make a difference in the lives of young people. Teachers are doing far more than teaching content. They are feeding, clothing, giving guidance, love and trying to meet student needs. The weathering of teacher mental wellness appears to be eroding at an epic pace. In the process of parents and educators trying to be the best within a highly dysfunctional and many times absent system, this lack of support is leaving a destructive path.

Mental illness is a medical condition just like asthma or diabetes. No one wakes up one day and chooses any medical condition, yet the stigma of mental illness is so intense that our society has given it its own dark back corner. Society has shamed and betrayed those with mental illnesses using narratives that somehow mental illness is more controllable than any other medical condition. It uses belittling language like “crazy,” “psycho,” “dangerous” and “violent,” leaving people with mental illnesses and their families petrified to get help out of fear of being labeled.

The same stigma is reflected in the lack of mental health systems, especially for children.

In Iowa, the first children’s mental health system legislation was not enacted until 2019. This means that millions of Iowans have been facing a non-existent system with ad hoc supports in attempts to get their children mental health services.

Also in Iowa, the legislation passed the first school mental health legislation in 2018, requiring that educators will receive one hour of suicide prevention and/or trauma training a year, meaning in five years teachers may have received five hours of awareness in mental health.

Now, it’s critical to note that parents and educators in Iowa and throughout the nation are organizing and trying to create systems knowing there is desperate need. On any given night, the news features stories of suicides, “out of control children,” neglectful parents, irresponsible schools and inept professionals. If you dare read the comments, you are consumed by the variety of self-proclaimed experts who are quick to place blame on everyone and everything. It’s my fault. It’s your fault. You can see claims that historically mental illness never happened and suicides are something new.

The thing is that mental illness is complicated and something that has not been given the same attention, research and resources as other medical conditions. It lacks the robust systems that ensure that all professionals working with children have been given the training they need to be highly effective with all students.

We do not have universal a mental health system that allows families, caregivers and young people a variety of opportunities for preventative mental health care, evaluations, treatments, resources and ongoing support the way that people have for most other medical conditions.

We have to be intentional and strategic in how we support those with mental illness, and it starts with our larger systems. Without strong and sustainable systems in place, it is an uphill battle that only erodes the mental wellness of everyone involved.

  • Government leaders and decision-makers need to become informed on mental health, as it arguably touches all other aspects of government and other legislation. Education is critical because not all legislation is good, but when well-informed coalitions of stakeholders have enacted critical life-changing policy that gets lost in the weeds and games of politics, lives are hurt and lost because of it.
  • School boards and administration have to make this a priority. There is no other district and/or school goals that cannot be met if children do not have their basic needs met. This priority also has to include making adult self-care and mental health a priority. Educators cannot take care of other people’s children if they are not taking care of themselves first.
  • This work has to be intersectional and take into account existing traumas systems create for marginalized populations. 
  • Typically there are multiple state agencies, organizations and leaders doing a variety of work. Time and effort is wasted and lost when work is not collaborative. We are by far stronger together.

Without this support, struggling children will continue to get labeled as aggressive and noncompliant. We have to come together to make the system better.

Getty image via Serghei Turcanu

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