Every so often I get parents enquiring about solutions to deal with children who act out. These kids could be anywhere from 2 -20! And like everything else, my aim is to always first address the cause of the problem before solutionising.
So, before we delve into why kids act out, let’s perhaps understand what the phrase ‘acting out’ really is.
Picture being blindfolded and then dropped onto a foreign land. You undo the blindfold and look at your surroundings and everything feels unfamiliar. You look at road signs and the script is indecipherable. You see people pass by and you stare at them while you’re being stared at in turn. You feel a knot rising in the pit of your stomach and a mix of different emotions building inside you. You look around for any sign of familiarity and then catch hold of someone who appears less threatening and ask them for help.
Help with where to go to make a call to a loved one? Help with finding some water? Help with trying to understand where you are? Or anything else that you can think of in that moment.
You ask of them in a language familiar to you. But all you get in return is a blank stare. They don’t understand you. You get a little frustrated, you stop speaking in sentences and use just a couple of words. And as is common to human, when frustrated we tend to show our agitation in our body language, voice and tonality. The words however are not getting you anywhere and the person is trying desperately to understand you to help you but alas, to no avail!
You then proceed to enact your request – using some universal signs like ‘make a call’, ‘drink water’ or ‘the airport’ perhaps?
What exactly happened from the moment you first spoke to you playing dumb charades?
- You started off speaking in a way that was familiar to you
- When that failed, you unconsciously decided to use key words alone to get your point across
- When that failed, exasperated, you started displaying your agitated side and started … ‘acting out’ what you were trying to communicate – this may or may not have been accompanied with a raised voice.
Now let’s place your child in the above scenario.
They have this body and brain they know nothing about. They feel emotions rising inside them when something doesn’t go their way. They don’t understand these emotions but all they know is, “it doesn’t feel pleasant inside me.” So, they start using ‘key words’. Alas, we still don’t get their key words or don’t agree with their request. Our desperation and frustration is visible to them and that further creates a cocktail of emotions inside them and now, they give up on words and just … ‘act out!’
You see, if in the scenario of the foreign land I were to ask you, how would you have felt, you would be able to describe what you were feeling to me. Logically, with the aid of good enough vocabulary to convey what it is you were going through (thoughts, feelings and all). Despite that, you probably felt so frustrated that you were nearing your wits end and just wanted to scream!
Unlike you however, children do not and cannot process what it is they are feeling. They just know it doesn’t make them feel good inside their bodies. They want to tell you, but they see it all over your face that you don’t understand what it is they’re trying to say and that that further adds fuel to their frustrated flame. They neither have the cognitive faculties developed enough to the point to logically sit you down and explain with proper vocabulary, nor do they have the mechanism to regulate those emotions. And the only step that unconsciously happens next is, what is commonly termed as acting out.
Acting out can be different between kids of different ages and different personalities.
Some throw themselves on the floor and wriggle in frustration
Some yell and scream and proceed to do something with their hands or legs in frustration
Others lash out with words or say things like, ‘’go away” or “I don’t like you”
Some others, walk away into their rooms and slam the door while others still simply burst out crying.
What do you need to remember when this happens –
- Take a step back but don’t leave the scene – Just as you would see your friend sad, lonely, hurt or in grief, you wouldn’t walk away thinking, “I’ll deal with you when you settle down or start behaving” – similarly, do not walk away from your child who is overwhelmed with big emotions. Take a step back but stay put and just wait.
- You do not have to react when they scream, yell or utter harsh words. Their tiny brains are trying to put into words (with minimum vocabulary) the frustration they are feeling. Been in a situation where you said things in anger you didn’t mean to? This is that exactly, but on a child’s scale. Don’t react and just wait.
- Emotions last for 60 to 90 seconds unless the trigger or reaction to that emotion becomes further provocative. Ever get even angrier when some one tells you to calm down? Or has some one told you to snap out of being upset and you just did? (Do I hear you say, humph! As if!) Well neither will that work with a child. If you were to tell them to ‘stop misbehaving’ or yelled at them yourself or try to physically pull them off the floor or raised your hand for acting out, you are doing nothing but provoking the situation. Refrain from saying something you wouldn’t like to hear when you are upset, angry or frustrated, and just wait.
- If your child is at the risk of hurting themselves with the thrashing around, blocking an entrance at a shop or having a meltdown in the middle of the road, sure, go ahead and carry them to a safe spot and then allow them to regulate/experience their emotion.
- Patience is the key and needs to be front and centre. Patience on your part, not your child’s.
What can you (and possibly should) do instead –
- Instead of thinking, ‘ugh, this is so embarrassing”, “you are getting me so mad!”, “why can’t you just behave?!” or “not again, please!” – reframe your thoughts to, “Oh you poor child”, “I feel so much for you to not be able to understand what you’re going through”, “I cant imagine how frustrating you feel at the moment and not be able to verbalise it!”
- What this does is, it refashions your thoughts from frustration and anger, to empathy and concern. It’s hard to be empathetic to someone you feel is driving you up the wall, but it’s harder to be mad at someone you feel sorry for, someone who you see is struggling.
- Stay close but two steps back. Leaving the scene only teaches them that when they are not feeling their best, they are not wanted. They grow up to become individuals who then have a hard time talking about their feelings for fear of being shut down or abandoned. Think: Teenagers who slam their door shut when you sense they should share things with you instead?
- Know that the thoughts going through your head are based on your past experiences, your mood, your energy levels and other such factors. The fact however is that, there is a young being in front of you who is struggling with the inability to process their emotions and as a result failing to regulate it.
- Remember to NOT take things personally. When they are struggling, they have no control on their words and actions. If you keep reminding yourself that they are struggling – it makes the situation more about them and less about you.
- Keeping your calm and being patient and present is exhausting and indeed can take a toll on you too, so find ways to get the support you require. If there are personal challenges with learning to develop more patience or understanding how you can better deal with such inevitable situations, make use of resources available online and in person.
Children only act out until they are children. But if they fail to learn to regulate their emotions and/or get the implication that what they are doing is wrong/weird or in no way acceptable – they grow into individuals who have challenges with emotional repression or outbursts.