Reasons Why Your Child Might Be Acting out

two toddler siblings fighting over playdough at table

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What are some of the reasons why your child would act out? Whether your child has regular temper tantrums, or only recently and suddenly began to have meltdowns, getting at the cause of the behavior is an important first step in remedying the problem.

What Is Acting out Behavior?

We don't really have to define the term "acting out" for parents to understand what we are talking about. Yet it is important to provide a definition of acting out behavior before talking about the possible causes.

The expression "acting out" usually refers to problem behavior that is physically aggressive, destructive to property, verbally aggressive, or otherwise more severe than simple misbehavior. Acting out behavior is disruptive in any setting and often requires formal behavior intervention to manage it. Other words parents may use to describe this behavior include:

  • Temper tantrums
  • Meltdowns
  • Disruptive behavior
  • Aggression
  • Defiance
  • Oppositional behavior

Common Reasons Why Kids Act out

There are a number of possible reasons for acting out behavior, and few are as simple as "he's a bad kid." When a child acts out, the pattern of inappropriate behavior is often used to cover up deeper feelings of pain, fear, or loneliness.

If we simply blame the behavior on a child being a bad kid, we deepen his reasons for acting out instead of reducing them.

We also leave the child feeling yet more alone with whatever emotions he is coping with.

Because finding a solution to acting behavior requires finding a reason for the behavior (beyond thinking a child is simply a bad kid), it's important to talk about what some of these reasons may be. These are not always obvious, and in fact, can be deeply buried. At times the very act of a tantrum is meant to hide the source of the misbehavior from parents.

Taking a look at each of these possibilities—without dismissing them as not possible in your situation—is important in order to get to the source which is hurting both you and your child. Many parents are surprised to learn about the underlying cause of their child's tantrums.

Let's look at some of the reasons for acting out:

A Normal Response to an Upsetting Situation

Some children act out because they are responding to a situation that has upset them to the point where they are unable to manage their emotions. In some cases, a child has been goaded into responding to other students in the class.

In this case and the behavior alone is addressed, a child who has been maltreated will be punished for responding to maltreatment. The punishment, in a sense, teaches the child that he does not have a right to be protected or have feelings, the opposite of what we wish for our children when it comes to building their self-esteem.

In other cases, a child may be responding to something that is happening outside of the immediate setting. For example, a child who is being abused at home may "act out" in school where he can show his feelings with greater safety. On the flip side, a child who is being bullied at school may "act out" his anger and frustration by misbehaving at home.

Untreated Mental Health Conditions

Some children "act out" because of untreated disorders. Some conditions which may underlie acting out behavior include:

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism
  • Anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

While all of these disorders can be effectively treated with a combination of therapies, treatment must also be appropriate and consistent.

Unrecognized Sensory Issues

In some cases, children "act out" because of sensory issues such as sensory processing disorder, that may be unrecognized. For example, many children with autism (and quite a few without a specific diagnosis) may have sensory challenges that make ordinary sights and sounds physically painful.

Imagine spending the day coping with constant discomfort in the form of blinking lights, squeaking chairs, and uncomfortable clothes. In such a situation, almost anyone would find it hard to stay calm.

Undiagnosed Learning Disabilities

Another cause for "acting out" may be frustration due to undiagnosed or untreated learning disabilities. A child who has, for example, undiagnosed dyslexia will fall further and further behind in school.

Eventually, if his challenges are not addressed, he will be unable to learn in a typical classroom setting. Unless changes are made, he has nothing to do with his school time except get into trouble.

A Means of Getting Attention From Adults

There are certainly some children who "act out" as a means of getting attention—positive or negative—from adults.

You may wish to check out these parenting strategies for kids who often seek attention through negative behavior, and learn about these positive attention strategies that may reduce bad behavior. There are also some behaviors, such as power struggles, that are sometimes best left ignored.

To Impress Peers

There are also those children who "act out" in order to impress peers. Even when this is the case, however, it's important to understand the motivation behind this need to impress.

In some cases these children are truly being neglected or shunned; in other cases, they're simply amusing themselves. Either way, if acting out is getting them the kind of attention they crave, they will continue to misbehave.

Importance of Finding the Cause Before Treatment

Before developing any kind of intervention or treatment plan for a child who is acting out, it is absolutely critical to discover the cause of his behavior. Only then can the root issues be addressed. Only after the cause of the behavior is understood can it be effectively modified.

Examples: Acting out behavior is the main cause of suspension and expulsion in schools.

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