What is acting out?

People say a child is “acting out” when they exhibit unrestrained and improper actions. The behavior is usually caused by suppressed or denied feelings or emotions.

Acting out reduces stress. It’s often a 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.

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. They’re 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: Children who believe they’re 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.

There are several common signs that a child is acting out. If these signs last more than six months or become progressively inappropriate, you should consult a doctor.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, warning signs from children can include the following behaviors:

  • 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

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

You should also talk to a doctor if you think your 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’re overwhelmed and disturbed by your child’s acting out, you should consider speaking with a child psychologist.

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, your best chance at adjusting your child’s improper behavior is to encourage better behavior. Here are some guidelines for responding when your child acts out:

  • Maintain clear expectations: 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.
  • Keep it positive: 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.
  • Stay cool: 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.
  • Don’t take it personally: 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 emotionally hurt by your child’s actions, you may be too upset to discover the real reason behind your child’s behavior.

When children fight, throw fits, steal, or engage in other unrestrained and improper behavior, people refer to it as “acting out.” Reasons for this behavior are complicated, but it’s usually the result of a child’s suppressed emotions and feelings.

Acting out can stem from a child’s underlying attention issues, power struggles, lack of self-esteem, or personality disorders. Maintaining clear expectations using a calm, positive approach can go a long way to defusing the situation. If you feel overwhelmed, do not hesitate to consult a healthcare professional.