6 Reasons Why Kids "Act Out"

Many children "act out" by throwing temper tantrums. But why?

Children Fighting
Children Fighting. Johner Images - Kronholm, Susanne / Brand X Pictures / Getty Images

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.

So -- why would a child "act out?"

There are a number of possible reasons, and few are as simple as "he's a bad kid."

  1. 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, they have been goaded into responding by other students in the class. In other cases, they 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.
  2. Some children "act out" because of untreated disorders such ADHD, autism, anxiety, or even obsessive compulsive disorder. While all of these disorders can be effectively treated through a combination of therapies, treatment must also be appropriate and consistent.
  3. In some cases, children "act out" because of sensory issues 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.
  1. 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!
  1. There are certainly some children who "act out" as a means of getting attention -- positive or negative -- from adults.  And there are those who "act out" in order to impress peers. 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.

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.

Also Known As: tantrums, behavior meltdowns, disruptive behavior, destructive behavior, aggression, defiance, oppositional behavior

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

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