A child is said to be "acting out" when he or she exhibits unrestrained and often improper actions. The behavior is usually caused by suppresse...
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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
What Causes Acting Out?
The psychological factors that prompt acting out are often
Common issues that cause a child to act out include:
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.
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
- damaging or
- harming or
threatening other people or pets
- truancy or poor
drinking alcohol, or drug abuse
- early sexual
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
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 (Psychology.com). 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
- 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.
Medically Reviewed by:
George Krucik, MD, MBA
Oct 30, 2013
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.