Acting Out | Definition and Patient Education

Acting Out

What Is Acting Out?

A child is said to be “acting out” when he or she exhibits unrestrained and often improper actions. The behavior is usually caused by suppressed or denied feelings or emotions. Acting out reduces stress or is the child’s attempt to show otherwise hidden emotions. Acting out may include fighting, throwing fits, or stealing. In severe cases, acting out is associated with antisocial behavior and other personality disorders in teenagers and younger children (Psychology Dictionary).

What Causes Acting Out?

The psychological factors that prompt acting out are often complicated.

Common issues that cause a child to act out include:

  • Attention issues: Children often seek attention from parents, peers, or other authority figures. If they don’t get the positive attention they want, they will act out to get negative attention. 
  • Desire for power: Children often feel powerless. Children are usually unable to control their situations and environment. They act out because it allows them to feel in control of their actions.
  • Self-esteem issues: A child who believes that he or she is unable to perform a task may act out to distract a parent.
  • Personality disorders: Personality disorders that lead to acting out are more common in adults and older teenagers. They include: antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder. In children, attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) may be associated with acting out.

What Are the Symptoms of Acting Out?

There are several signs that are associated with a child who is acting out. If these signs last more than six months or become progressively inappropriate, then you should consult a physician.

Warning signs can include the following behaviors (Medline Plus, 2013):

  • damaging or vandalizing property
  • harming or threatening other people or pets
  • self-harm
  • lying
  • stealing
  • truancy or poor academic performance
  • smoking, drinking alcohol, or drug abuse
  • early sexual activity
  • frequent tantrums and arguments
  • consistent anger and rebellion against authority figures

When to Seek a Doctor

Whether to speak with a doctor about a child’s acting out is a decision you should base on your personal observations. If you believe that the acting out symptoms are unmanageable or worsening, then you should consult a healthcare professional.

Another reason to talk to a doctor is because you think that the child’s behavior is having lasting negative effects on your family or on the child’s development. Acting out can cause strife and disorder in your family. If you, another of your children, or another relative is overwhelmed and disturbed by your child’s acting out, then you may need to speak with a child psychologist.

How Is Acting Out Treated?

Your child will rarely need medications to address acting out. Medications may cause your child to be more sedate and less prone to outbursts. They do not address the underlying cause of the behavior.

In most cases, behavior modification initiated by parents offers the best chance at adjusting a child’s inappropriate behavior ( Some guidelines for addressing acting out include:

  • Set clear and detailed expectations for your child. Be consistent with your rules and the consequences for breaking those rules. If you remain firm and organized with what you expect from your children, they will be less likely to act out.
  • A positive parenting approach focuses on rewarding children when they are being good. Rewards can be as simple as paying your child extra attention, praise, or even a small token. This will reinforce the child’s acceptable behavior. You should avoid giving your attention to a child acting out. This will only teach the child that if they want your attention, they just need to misbehave.
  • Taking the time to acknowledge and reduce your own stress signals will help you cope with a challenging child. If you are calm, even when your child is acting out, you will be in a better position to react properly to their behavior.
  • Do not personalize your child’s actions. Most of the time, your child’s actions are not a direct attack against you. Your child is just using this behavior (sometimes subconsciously) to deal with a sensitive issue. If you are hurt by your child’s actions, you may be too upset to discover the real reason behind your child’s behavior.

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