Acting Out

By Emcole Strauss – Student Clinical Psychologist

Many children who ‘act out’ have often experienced emotional hurt, trauma or sit with their intense feelings of confusion, fear, loneliness, pain, isolation and vulnerability, which are too strong and powerful to contain. For a child acting out is an expression that is often misunderstood and misguided. To understand the complexity of ‘acting out’ it is important to understand the nature of acting.

Children are natural actors and create some of the most sophisticated phantasmagorical worlds and adventures in which they are able to express themselves. Their fantasies are not just a world of magic but instead a reflection of experiences being processed, coded and dealt with. In a strange way the child offers therapy to themselves.

When they step into their fantasy worlds they are both the teacher and the learner, or the parent and the child, at times they are the dog, the clock, and the table. They have a unique ability to process through the most complex experiences by taking on different perspectives and stepping into roles in which they learn to empathise and cognitively understand the model they are processing and imitating.

The nature of ‘acting out’ is unconscious, the behaviour might seem intentional, but the expression of inner turmoil or the profound need for help, and understanding, is often overlooked because the focus is only on ‘acting out’ and not the message the child is communicating through ‘acting out’. After all what is acting if not the human ability to tell a story.

When children are unable to articulate their feelings, understand the cause of these feelings, or mentally process their traumatic experiences in a meaningful way – they ‘act out’. What they cannot act, (process, code or deal with successfully) they act out. We can look at this as a build up of frustrated thoughts, emotions, or experiences where the child became stuck and could not change perspectives, or were not allowed to, for one or other reason.

Sadly, instead of receiving help and being understood, such children are all too often criticized, ignored, rejected or labelled for their behaviour. These forms of dealing with the behaviour intensify the child’s sense of injustice. Isolating them, and paradoxically informs them that they have a flawed character. This translates into feelings that they are unlovable. As a result, they are unable to form healthy relationships, become deeply mistrustful of others, cynical, pessimistic and intermittently suicidal

Instead of blaming, labelling or ignoring the child, ‘acting out’ should be addressed for what it truly is; a breakdown in communication. The restriction of the child’s ability to process and shift perspective of a frustrated story that underlays the behaviour. In simple the child’s ability to act is frustrated and stuck; to release the frustration the child must re-experience the freedom to act, the acceptance, and compassion to express themselves fully. Offering a safe environment in which the child is able to shift into different roles and re-learn empathy.

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