4 Reasons Why Your Child May Be Acting Out & How to Respond
“Acting out” is a term used to describe the behavior of a child who’s screaming, hitting, arguing, having tantrums, or becoming otherwise aggressive and disorderly. The triggers may be somewhat ambiguous, and it can feel quite unsettling to parents. Getting to the root of this type of behavior can be complicated, but it’s an essential step for any caregiver. If you’ve been wondering, “Why is my child acting out all of a sudden?” you’re in the right place. Let’s examine a few common reasons for this type of behavior and what you can do to help make it better.
What Is Acting Out?
Acting out is defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as an “extreme behavioral expression of emotions that relieves tension or communicates these emotions in a disguised or indirect way.” It can manifest in a variety of ways including the following:
- Temper tantrums or meltdowns: unrestrained fits of screaming, crying, or other intense behavior
- Defiance or oppositional behavior: Intentionally disregarding the rules, being argumentative, or opposing authority figures
- Aggression: antagonistic or forceful speech or behavior targeting another individual
Whether it’s a toddler or a teenager, acting out at any age is unnerving and usually needs some type of formal behavior intervention to deal with it.
Why Is My Child Acting Out?
There are a variety of reasons why a child may act out. While being tired or hungry is a common trigger for this type of misbehavior, often the reason can be deeper. Usually, it boils down to the child experiencing more complex emotions, like fear, pain, or loneliness. When parents react by dealing with the behavior in an unfitting way or simply write off the child as a “bad kid,” it can leave the child feeling more isolated with whatever complex feelings they’re already trying to manage.
Here are a few common reasons your child may be acting out. Closely examining each of these possibilities may help you identify the underlying cause of the misbehavior.
1. They’re dealing with a sensory issue.
Some children are trying to deal with undiagnosed sensory issues, like sensory processing disorder (SPD). For instance, some kids on the autism spectrum (and many who do not necessarily have this diagnosis) may experience a condition that makes everyday sounds and sights painful (i.e., the constant discomfort from an itchy tag in their shirt or a squeaky chair might cause a full-on meltdown). Kids who have SPD may become overwhelmed by sensory information, which then manifests as emotional and behavioral symptoms including anxiety, aggression, and inattention.
2. They desire attention.
Of course, some kids act out as a way to get attention from the grown-ups in their lives. Typically, most parents will leave their kids alone to some degree if they are behaving well. However, when your kids are misbehaving, you'll focus your attention on them. Unfortunately, this can have unintended consequences. The attention surrounding the misbehavior can actually increase the misbehavior as a way to get more attention from adults.
3. They’re coping with a learning difference.
Frustration due to untreated or undiagnosed learning disorders can also cause a child to act out. Common signs of learning differences include difficulty not following directions, difficulty concentrating, and not completing homework. Kids with learning disorders are frequently labeled as lazy or told to just try harder, which can take a toll on their self-esteem and cause disruptive behavior. Knowing what to look for can help teachers and parents get kids the help they need.
4. They’re trying to manage some other problem.
Sometimes kids act out in response to an issue that has upset them to the point that they aren’t able to cope with their feelings. For example, a child who’s being bullied or teased at school may be provoked into reacting to their classmates' taunts. Alternatively, their frustration and anger may cause them to misbehave at home. The child is then punished for their reaction. The child may interpret this as their feelings not being important or deserving of protection.
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How Should I Respond When My Child Acts Out?
Children aren’t always logical, rational beings. You may not always understand your child’s behavior. On the other hand, some parenting experts believe it’s important to always try to identify the cause of the misbehavior before enforcing a consequence. Here are a few general ideas to consider the next time your child acts out.
- Establish clear boundaries and expectations for behaviors. Be certain that your child knows how you expect them to act, as well as the consequences if they act out.
- Set fair consequences. The most effective consequences are instant, consistent, and developmentally appropriate.
- Keep your composure. You may need to count to ten and take a couple of deep breaths before you respond. Try to stay calm and keep your cool when your child is acting out.
- Seek assistance. If you’re unable to manage the behavior or if the situation seems to be getting worse, consult a healthcare provider for guidance.
While it may feel frustrating in the moment, it can help to know that all kids act out at some point. With the right guidance and intervention, however, most children will eventually learn how to manage difficult emotions in a healthy, productive way. Do your best to stay calm and deal with your child’s behavior in a fair, appropriate way. Over time and with your help, your children will get better at managing their feelings. If the behavior seems to get worse or happen more often, speak with your pediatrician. They can offer guidance on what may be causing your child to act out, as well as provide tips for managing the behavior or an outside referral if needed.
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