The recent news about 18-year-old Isabella Yun-Mi Guzman, accused of fatally stabbing her mother79 times in the face and neck in the bathroom of their Colorado home, has shaken many in the Aurora community. There were ongoing relational issues between Isabella and her mother, but how did it escalate to such a violent act? In the aftermath, some of us might be thinking, could this happen to me and my family? Was there something her parents, other family members, or concerned friends and neighbors could have done to prevent this?
I believe there is a strong possibility that Isabella had a mental illness that her family and friends were not fully aware of. Most mentally ill people are not violent; however, some of the more severe disorders that might involve paranoia or delusions could lead someone to commit violent acts because their perceptions are incredibly skewed and they are not in touch with reality. Mental illness in youth can be difficult to identify, and many parents don’t know the signs and symptoms of mental illness in young children. Concerns about the stigma associated with mental illness and the cost of treatment may also prevent parents from seeking care for a child who might be mentally ill. As a result, many youth who could benefit from treatment don’t get the help they need.
Here, I offer some guidance on what signs to look for and some resources to ensure that you are protecting yourself and your loved ones.
Abnormal behaviors that might suggest your child needs professional help
Mood changes: Look for sadness, withdrawal, or severe mood swings that cause problems at home and/or school. Crying spells, severe bouts of tantrum, or disinterest in things they used to care about and enjoy are other warning signs.
Behavior changes: This includes drastic changes in personality and out-of-control behavior. Physical fighting, using weapons, running away from home or expressing a desire to badly hurt others are warning signs.
Problems at school: Suddenly dropping grades, a large number of tardies and truancies, and other disciplinary actions at school are often seen.
Physical harm: Sometimes a mental health condition leads to suicidal thoughts or actual attempts at self-harm or suicide. Sometimes young people will cut on their bodies, so watch for lacerations, especially on arms and legs.
Substance use: Some kids use alcohol or drugs to try to numb their feelings or escape reality.
Secretiveness: Watch to see if your teen suddenly starts to keep information from you or evade questioning about what they are doing on a daily basis.
Warning signs for violent behaviors in children
Youth who have several risk factors and show the following red flag behaviors should be carefully evaluated.
Risk factors: Research studies have shown that a combination of factors lead to an increased risk of violent behavior in youth. These include:
Previous aggressive or violent behavior
Being the victim of physical abuse, sexual abuse or bullying
Exposure to violence in the home or at school
Use of drugs and/or alcohol
Stressful family factors such as poverty, divorce, unemployment
Red flag behaviors: Seeing some of these behaviors over a period of time (for example, one to two months) in a somewhat consistent fashion is very concerning, especially if it is different from how the child used to behave.
Low frustration tolerance
Frequent loss of temper that seems out of proportion with the event
What can parents do?
Don’t minimize these problems if you observe any of the above warning signs that your child might need professional help, or if you see a large number of the risk factors occurring with several of the red flag behaviors. It can be very scary to think about what needs to be done in these cases, but there are many resources that can help you make sense of what’s going on and provide you with a step-by-step plan of how to solve the situation. Here is a list of 24-hour hotlines that can provide emotional support for you and your child, and help to refer you to no-cost or low-cost professional care options in your community. Most importantly, don’t wait if you have concerns. Every minute is valuable and can help to protect you and your loved ones.
National Parent Helpline – Help for Parents
- (855) 4APARENT
Domestic Violence Hotline
- (800) 799-SAFE
COVENANT HOUSE NINELINE – crisis line for youth, teens and families
- (800) 999-9999
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE RESOURCE HOTLINE – referrals for shelters and counseling in your area
- (800) 799-7233
- (800) 543-7283
YOUTH CRISIS HOTLINE
- (800) HIT-HOME