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Is your child acting out? Why it might happen

By Julie Rawe

At a Glance

  • When kids act out, they may be struggling with something they don’t understand or know how to put into words.

  • Acting out is a common response to big changes in kids’ lives.

  • It’s also common when kids have trouble with self-control.

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Is your child acting out a lot these days? The angry outbursts might seem to come out of nowhere. And when you ask why it’s happening, your child says something like, “Why are you asking me these stupid questions?”

It can seem like your child is just being defiant. If the rules are clear, why isn’t your child following them?

Kids often act out when they’re struggling with something and having trouble putting it into words. Maybe it’s the pandemic and distance learning, and the uncertainty that comes with it. Maybe it’s anger or fear related to police brutality and racial injustice. Or it could be a problem with schoolwork or friends.

Learn more about why kids act out and what to do next.

What acting out looks like

Here are examples of what you might see your child doing:

  • Refusing to follow rules, especially new ones

  • Not listening to you or answering your questions

  • Making rude or disrespectful comments

  • Blowing up over what seem like minor things

  • Acting in ways that seem younger, like throwing a tantrum

  • Crying after getting angry

Acting up can look like defiance. But there’s a difference between the two. When kids are defiant, they know the rules and make a choice not to follow them. When kids act out, they may be flooded with so much emotion that they aren’t fully aware of what they’re doing or why.

Why kids act out

All kids act out from time to time. But if your child is acting out a lot, there may be something going on that your child either doesn’t understand or doesn’t know how to put into words.

It’s common for kids to act up when they’re feeling anxious. They may be struggling with big changes, like school closures, a new baby at home, or the death of a family member. Smaller things can cause anxiety too, like getting ready for a test or being confused by something that happened with a friend.

Even a small change in routine can make kids feel like everything is up in the air or uncertain. Kids may respond in anger if they feel like they don’t know what’s happening in the moment or what’s going to happen next.

Some kids act out because they have trouble controlling their impulses (self-control). This can make it hard for them to follow directions.

Others act out because they’re having trouble with a school subject like reading, writing, or math. If your child refuses to do schoolwork, that could be your child’s way of saying, “I don’t know how to do this.” If your child acts out in the morning or at the end of the day, it might be because your child spends the school day trying to hide these struggles.

This is especially true for younger kids who have trouble with language. They act out as a way to show they’re struggling, and they can’t find the right words to use. But it can happen with older kids, too.

What to do next

Take notes on what you’re seeing. The outbursts may seem random. But if you jot down key details, you may start to notice patterns in the behavior. These patterns can help you start to look for solutions.

For example, when does your child act out? Does it happen at certain times, like when your child is doing school stuff? That could be a sign it’s time to talk with your child’s teacher. You can also share what you’re seeing with another caregiver who’s close with your child.

Talk about whether the acting out is something new or if it’s been going on for a while. Your child’s health care provider can also help you figure out if what you’re seeing is typical for kids this age.

It’s frustrating when kids act out, and it can be hard to keep your cool. It’s important to provide structure and set limits. But try to show empathy when your child breaks the rules. You can say, “I understand you’re feeling a lot of emotion about something. I’m not sure what’s happening, but we can figure it out together.”

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Key Takeaways

  • Changes in routine can lead kids to act out.

  • So can having trouble with a school subject like reading or math.

  • Look for patterns in your child’s behavior, and find out what teachers and others close to your child have noticed.


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Share Is your child acting out? Why it might happen

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Email
  • Text Message
  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom