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Acting Out – What, How, Why, And The Painful Truth + 18 Examples

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In this week’s Success Newsletter, I would like to like to reveal what acting out is and the reasons that children and teenagers act out.

First a quick update: 

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Acting Out – What, How, Why And The Truth?

In this article I reveal what acting out is and the reasons that children and teenagers act out. Note that I define acting out in many ways throughout this article so you can grasp its meaning and significance.

Acting Out Begins As Tantrums Under Age 4

If you have a child under four years of age, then you have experienced his/her tantrums. Usually, with the appropriate parenting and direction children engage in fewer tantrums as they grow and develop. The tantrums tend to peak around age 3 or 4.

WHAT: Tantrums is a form of acting out

Acting out is extreme or unrestrained behavior that serves to express thoughts or feelings that the child has denied or feels unsafe or incapable to express. In younger years, it can be the result of the inability to cope and deal with frustration, anger or hurt.

Acting out is the bad behavior that is the result of the conflict to express and to deny the emotion.

Acting Out Beyond Age 4

When acting out continues past age 4, it becomes a defense mechanism representing the struggle to cope with life – with emotions, thoughts and pain.

A defense mechanism serves to protect the person from thoughts and feelings that are either unacceptable or overwhelming, or which produce anxiety, or which they unconsciously feel and believe that they cannot handle or cope with.

If your child is acting out, they are not doing it to simply behave badly, they are in pain and do not know how to cope.

HOW: 18 Examples of Acting Out

Remember, that acting out is the result of inner emotions and thoughts which need to be expressed but are blocked, deemed to be unacceptable, overwhelming or anxiety-provoking. Therefore, acting out will take many forms of bad, anti-social, disruptive, self-destructive, or violent behavior.

  1. Defiance – Anger and rebellion against authority figures
  2. Stealing, shoplifting
  3. Frequent tantrums and arguments
  4. Extreme or pathological lying
  5. Hostility – Bullying others
  6. Assault
  7. Harming, injuring or threatening other people or pets
  8. Self-harm – cutting self, burning self, banging head against a wall; slapping or punching self
  9. Smoking, drinking alcohol, or drug abuse
  10. Running away
  11. Truancy
  12. Poor academic performance
  13. Engaging in early or unsafe sexual activities
  14. Aggression – Damaging or vandalizing property
  15. Starting fires
  16. Getting into fights
  17. Rape or sexual assault
  18. Homicide

WHY: Acting Out To Release and Express Pain And Call Out For Help/Attention

As mentioned earlier, acting out is the result of suppressed emotions and thoughts. Acting out expresses inner pain, and the inability to cope with the emotions and thoughts.

Acting out is a common response to trauma, abuse or other adverse childhood events – ACE.

Acting out can also be the desire for attention – positive or negative – and it can be a cry for help. For children, positive attention is equivalent to love; negative attention creates a distorted understanding of love – Twisted Love. Children want and need positive attention and validation from their parents, peers and authority figures. When they don’t get it, they will look for a subconscious or unconscious way to get it – even if it leads to negative attention and punishment.

Acting Out and Trauma – Cutting

If the child has experienced abuse, trauma, abandonment or neglect, then he/she will also feel helpless and powerless. Helplessness is one of the most common emotions experienced as a result of trauma or abuse (physical, sexual or verbal.) Therefore, acting out can also be the desire to feel powerful or in control or their environment or actions.

For example, when a person cuts or burns themselves (or some other form of self-harm/self-injury), he/she is acting out as a way to cope with emotional pain, deep emotional distress, stress, trauma, intense anger, frustration, or rejection. Although, cutting is painful, the person that cuts him/herself does so to release pain, ease tension or feel like he/she is in control of the pain. Cutting (like other acting out behaviors) can also become a habit and a default mode of responding to emotional pain, and the act of cutting can cause additional guilt and shame.

THE TRUTH About Acting Out

Remember, if your child is acting out, they are not doing it to simply behave badly, they are in pain and do not know how to cope. It is a defense mechanism against the overwhelming, confusing or intolerable emotions and thoughts they are experiencing but cannot express and which they are unconsciously trying to deny. They need your help, not your judgement.

I explain anxiety as the feeling or belief that your world is out of control coupled with the attempt to try and control that which you can’t control. Acting out is the attempt to avoid feeling the anxiety and the internal and external stressors and pain.

Communicate gently, patiently and openly with your child to determine what the real pain is that they are struggling or unable to cope with: fear, loneliness, isolation, disconnection, guilt, shame, rejection, self-loathing, abandonment, neglect, low self-worth, lack of validation, lack of attention (feeling invisible), abuse, assault, trauma or something else.

If you as a child acted out, then it is highly likely that you may not have yet resolved the underlying pain. You can resolve it rapidly and easily, and you can be set free of the pain with my SRTT process. Book a one-on-one session with me.

You can add to the conversation below.

I wish you the best and remind you “Believe in yourself -You deserve the best!”

Patrick Wanis Ph.D.

Celebrity Life Coach, Human Behavior & Relationship Expert & SRTT Therapist

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