‘I don’t know why my child is acting out. For the first 12 years of their life they have been happy, easy to get along with and easy to please. Then one day they just changed, and I feel like I have a complete stranger in the house. I don’t understand why they are acting out as they are’.
‘He was always a good kid—kind and co-operative. Over the past 2 years he has changed into a sullen, non-co-operative young person. He refuses to help around the house, is always angry and shows hardly any interest in anyone but himself.’
Does this sound familiar to you? The child who, for much of their life experience, has been reasonably easy to understand, agreeable and not so hard to live with, seems to disappear and a stranger occupies their room. You are asking yourself, ‘Who is this alien that has taken over my child and how do I get the, back?’ If this or a scenario similar is your experience, then you are not alone.
‘Acting out’ is the term we frequently use to describe behaviour that appears disruptive, aggressive, rude or just plain unusual and therefore inappropriate. Really, what we mean is that when a child acts out, they are not conforming to our rules.
As parents with numerous and competing demands upon our time, we rarely have the time or patience to tolerate these ‘negative’ behaviours, typically reacting to contain and discourage them. So we discipline in ways that send messages such as, ‘Do this again and you can expect to be treated like you don’t belong in this family’. ‘Behave like that again and you will not get your week’s allowance’ and ‘Act like this and you will lose the right to have your own mobile phone’.
Typically, parents regard their children’s negative behaviour as something that needs to be ‘fixed’ —like they have some major malfunction in their personality. A different and more proactive perspective is to regard their behaviour as an indication that the context in which they live (family system, school and/or friends) is not functioning in a way that supports and encourages your child to be their better self.
Rather than blaming or victimising our children, this approach allows you to be your child’s best advocate, recognising that their behaviour is a code language drawing attention to a system (i.e. family, friends or other significant groups that your child may participate in) that is in distress.
Our children rarely know how to talk to us about the things that they feel deeply. Perhaps they have tried in the past and we have dismissed or minimised their feelings, or, they are not even sure what it is they are feeling.
Understanding what your child is ‘reacting to’ takes some good detective work. A parent needs to be patient, curious, observant and attentive to what their child’s behaviour is trying to call attention to.
Here are 7 possible reasons why your child might be acting out.
- Marital conflict
Negative behaviours such as bickering, criticism, sarcasm, yelling and fighting create an environment that is stressful and unpredictable. Children are likely to feel numerous negative emotions including anxiety, sadness, anger, fear and confusion. Often a child acts out to draw parent’s attention away from each other and therefore lessen the tension in the relationship.
- Parental separation
Even the years following a parental separation can cause emotional distress for children. Whilst you may have processed your own emotional experience, your child may still be holding a number of unresolved issues; sadness that you are not a family anymore, feeling guilty that somehow they are responsible for their parent’s separation, and angry that their whole world has dismantled and disassembled in ways that continue to feel difficult to manage.
The pain of loss for your child is as keen as your own and has no set time limit or method in how they process this challenging emotion. The loss of a parent, grandparent, close friend or a pet are life experiences that are frequently confusing, sad and, when not given expression, are toxic to our body and our emotions.
Being ‘time poor’ is one of the hazards of our fast-paced technological 21st century lifestyle. Many parents are simply preoccupied with the challenges of daily life; paying the mortgage on time, financial concerns, mental health issues, physical illness, caring for aging parents and looking after the needs of other siblings in their family. When we fail to notice that one of our children is lonely and needing our attention, they can look for ways to draw attention to themselves.
- Rigid rules and unrealistic expectations
How do you establish the family rules? When children are young, parents create rules and boundaries—spoken and unspoken—that define acceptable behaviour within the family context. As our children grow and develop, it is necessary to continually redefine these rules and boundaries to accommodate their changing needs, and support them towards individuation in their teenage years. When a parent’s rules remain rigid and unrealistic with regards to their child’s changing world, a child typically feels resentful, annoyed and angry.
- Generational trauma
The trauma of your past and even of your parent’s past, when unaddressed and therefore unresolved, continues to be alive and present in the experience of your children. Where there has been war, abandonment, neglect and other near death experiences, the pain and distress of the past will continue to find its echo in the present as long as it is unacknowledged and the impact unrecognised.
- Physical, emotional and /or sexual abuse
How does a child talk to a parent about ‘the unmentionable’ without feeling shame, terror, embarrassment or fear of not being believed? There are times when the abuse is within the family context—sometimes it is a family friend or neighbour, sometimes it is someone bullying them at school and other times it is happening in cyberspace. Acting out may be a ‘cry for help’ in this instance.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Just as there are no two children who are exactly alike, the reasons for their negative behaviour are numerous and take on nuances we often fail to recognise as parents. What is important is that, as the parent, you learn to recognise negative behaviours in your child (at any age) as much more than ‘being difficult’, ‘attention seeking’ or any other description we want to name them.
Learning how to listen attentively, build trust, teach your child to name their emotions and give them confidence that you will believe their experience, are vital for their behaviour to begin to settle. Equally as important is your willingness to address the REAL issue, which is more frequently a task for the parent.
If you are concerned about your child’s behaviour and feel unable to understand or address it in ways that feel positive and engaging, Family Therapy provides a safe space where a family dialogue can be facilitated in order to reconnect with your child and understand their behaviour. As a Family Therapist, Colleen Morris offers a warm and welcoming space where families can learn and grow together as they experience new and different conversations that have potential to heal and mend.
You can call Colleen for a FREE 10 minute consultation on 0434 337 245 or if you would like to make an appointment. To see Colleen, go to BOOK NOW and you will be able to access Watersedgecounselling’s online appointment diary.