When I hear the phrase "acting out", it is usually in the context of concern about a child who is displaying behaviors like screaming, tantrums, and inability to sit still or get along with other children. Or in the case of teenagers, it's used to describe behaviors like breaking the rules, shouting, and using drugs and alcohol. These behaviors are often paired with words like "disruptive" or "risk-taking". And "acting-out" becomes the thing to change. The suggested focus of therapy.
But I'm sure most clinicians would agree that when a youth is "acting out", there's a good reason for it. And we need to shift from asking ourselves how to stop the behavior to asking ourselves what's driving it.
Dr. Gabor Mate, in a talk he gave on October 24 2012, challenged us to remember the definition of acting out. To "act something out" is to express in behavior what we cannot express in words. What pain is this young person in front of us feeling, what thing have they witnessed or experienced, that they cannot express in words?
I invite any person who works with children to get curious. Reach out with compassion, to the child or teenager who is clearly struggling. Remind yourself when the young person you're trying to help snaps at you, it likely has nothing to do with being rude, disrespectful, or disruptive without purpose. Instead, they are actually doing the only thing they know how in order to cope.
"Acting out" is a perfectly good phrase that gets corrupted by the pejorative way we use it. Let's reclaim these words and seek to understand the story that youth are telling us through their actions.
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist and writer with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries.
About the Blog
This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective. It's also a space I'm exploring and refining new ideas.