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Children and Teens: Acting-Out and the Breadcrumb Trail

Children act-out. They act-out their emotions because they don’t know how to express what they are feeling with words. Or, they have reached an emotional saturation point where this is deemed pointless from their perspective. There may be emotional or physical problems interfering with communication and processing. We also know the reason may yet to be determined. Acting-out in children as well as adults serves the purpose of expressing emotion without words in favor of behavior. There are times acting-out involves words and the words are excessive or mean-spirited. When words are used as weapons the words become more like behavior. Angry behavior.

Children and teens are often a bit easier to read than adults. They have less history and less baggage built up over a lifetime of events, challenges, traumas, disappointments, and successes. Children (where I include teens) often want nothing more than to talk to someone, to express something or even everything. They are hungry for a clean interaction. The key word here is clean. Kids worry about telling their parents how they feel. Parents are wonderful, but they can get stretched thin where emotional availability is concerned. So kids might talk to one another or they might talk to a grandma or grandpa, aunt or uncle, or a close friend of the family. This also depends on many factors.

Children leave a trail of what they feel by way of behavior and by way of the small and seemingly insignificant things they say. Here is an example based on something real that happened.

I knew a girl once. Let’s call her Sally. She was seven years of age and acted out a lot at home. She was prone to rages, kicking and screaming, refusing to do her very limited school work, and insisting on watching television whenever she wanted. One day mom and dad said it was time to brush her teeth before bedtime and she could have thirty more minutes of television after the teeth were brushed before bedtime. Sally demanded she get the thirty minutes of television before brushing her teeth. She would do her teeth later. Mom and dad felt some rules had to be followed and they felt they were being reasonable. So they insisted on teeth first and TV later. Sally came undone. She started screeching, throwing toys at her mom, and said, “I hate you. You never loved me. I want to live somewhere else!”

What do you see so far in Sally’s example? Is she just another spoiled ungrateful kid? Perhaps not.

What are the breadcrumbs? We have Sally throwing things at mother, not father. Her words seem extreme for a situation related to brushing teeth and television time. They seem to be unconnected. The words are important. “You never loved me. I want to live somewhere else. I hate you.” 

I realize it is unfair to you the reader because you don’t know the full story. Think about the fact that we may not even know our own children’s full story, at least not from their angle of viewing. We may know the history of our children but perhaps not how they felt in that history at certain key points.

Sally was adopted at age three by the family in our story. Sally was born to a substance abusive and dependent mother who relinquished Sally and she was placed in foster care. Sally spent two years in foster care before adoption. Recently Sally’s biological mother died and the biological grandparent told Sally. The biological grandparent was allowed to have phone calls with Sally from time to time.

We would come to find out that Sally felt she had done something wrong or else her biological mother wouldn’t have given her away. Sally felt her foster family gave her away because, again, she must have been a bad child. She came to the adoptive family with the proverbial chip on her shoulder known as abandonment and not enough explanation or processing about what happened here. Sally was confused, which is normal. Sally was experiencing loss, also normal. Children who feel bad often act bad. Sally was familiar with being moved from home to home. She felt unloved. She was also angry as seen in “I hate you.” This is the open door. Anger is a normal response. If we could help her with her anger, might her behavior and acting-out improve?

Sally would learn to express her anger but not initially with words. She learned to create plays in play therapy. She would be the child and have the therapist be the relinquishing biological mother, but by way of puppets or stuffed animals.. She would use a stuffed animal collection and give the lion one role, the rooster another, and the bear yet another role. She played with me. She had me give a voice to a penguin who was a a very naughty penguin. This was the made-up script Sally asked me to follow. Then the penguin had to be sent away. On one occasion in this repetitive screenplay directed by Sally, the mother penguin, played by Sally, cried. There was a pause. Sally, no longer in the role as mother penguin was feeling as Sally. She cried hard and with such deep inconsolable pain.  She couldn’t stop crying for several long minutes. Sally looked imploringly at me, “I can’t make the tears stop! I don’t know how.” 

I said, “Let the tears come for now.”

Sally said, “But it doesn’t feel good. I don’t like it, the way it feels. I want it to stop.”

I said, “The tears will stop when it’s time, when you are ready.” 

“But I am ready now,” Sally cried.

I said, “Ok. You are crying because it hurt to be given away.” We talked with words about this.

And Sally cried some more and then stopped. The Acting-Out stopped at home. Sally would begin talking to her parents little by little about feelings. Things did get better.

Thank you! Tune in next time for more breadcrumbs to follow.

Best,

Nanette

Children and Teens: Acting-Out and the Breadcrumb Trail


Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, Ph.D.

Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, Ph.D. works in private practice as a psychotherapist. Nanette works with children, adults, adolescents, couples, and families. She also works as a consultant with public and private schools on issues ranging from suicide and violence prevention to topics on mental health issues affecting youth. She is the author of Entering Adulthood: Understanding Depression and Suicide, 1990,The Everything Self-Esteem Book with CD, 2011, and A Comparative Case Study of the Elderly Women Beggars of Central Mexico, 2006. She frequently appears on radio and television covering community mental health topics such as the Arizona wild fires in the summer of 2011 and the Gabrielle Gifford shooting in Tucson, Arizona.


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APA Reference
Burton Mongelluzzo, N. (2020). Children and Teens: Acting-Out and the Breadcrumb Trail. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 8, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/angst-anxiety/2020/06/children-and-teens-acting-out-and-the-breadcrumb-trail/

 

Last updated: 26 Jun 2020
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