Acting out, part 1

Kids act out.  If you have a child, or if you have been inside your local Walmart this past weekend, you know that this is true.  One of the most famous incidents in our family occurred in 1996 at 30,000 feet, when our 2 year old crawled under a seat and screamed all the way from Phoenix to El Paso. When we as adults see a really spectacular acting-out event like that, it often comes as a surprise.  The emotions and actions of the child seem out of proportion to whatever is going on in the moment.  I know our fellow commuters on Southwest Airlines that day had no idea why a short plane ride should provoke such an outburst.  But there was a back story.  Two weeks previously, that child had flown across the Pacific on the island-hopper service, landing in Fiji, Truk, Pohnpei, Guam, and Hawaii within a 24-hour period.  Then it had seemed wise to his parents to plan a flurry of visits to friends and relatives across the southwestern United States, necessitating numerous peanut-popping hops between various cities.  That day in Phoenix as we boarded that plane, he hit his limit.  And he acted out.

When kids come in for counseling, I almost always hear that the kids are "acting out."  In other words, there is some kind of behavior that bothers the adults.  And in my experience, this usually this means there is some kind of emotion that is bothering the child.

Not that bad behavior is acceptable or excusable.  I think, as parents, we need to calmly and immediately work to deal with the behavior.  We want our children to grow and learn, not get stuck forever in the tantrum-throwing stage.  We could all cite examples of adults we know who are stuck there. . . and this should motivate us to deal otherwise with our children.

But I've found that having some empathy for my child's back story can help me be calm while dealing with his behavior.  And looking toward long-term solutions, when we consider the back story, we can make wiser decisions in the future that may help our children live life more calmly.  For example, we learned our lesson during the airplane debacle of 1996 and never scheduled anything like that again.  That was a nightmare we did not care to repeat.

People always say "kids are resilient" as if it doesn't matter how hard you toss them, they will always bounce.  But the kids I see in my practice would tell you that this is not true.  They hurt, they are scared, and they need their parents to step up and take care of them.

A couple of weeks ago I heard a pastor say to his congregation, "It is not all about you!"  I'm taking it a bit out of context here, but I think it's something we need to be reminded of as parents:  this is not all about us.  Parenting is about our children, and doing the right thing for them.

Honestly, when our kids act out, it can be really embarrassing.  Trust me when I say, you do not want to be the parent of the screaming toddler when 200 people are trapped on a plane together.  But it is not all about us.  And we need to be prepared, even in the crisis of the moment, to take an emotional step back and think about what is really going on, and to consider what we can do to help our child learn to control his behavior and soothe his emotions.  Unfortunately, this takes time.  It won't happen during this 40-minute plane ride, and maybe not during tomorrow's either.  It's something we work toward:  carefully, patiently, incrementally.

Kids don't have the vocabulary to tell us what is wrong.  We tend to think that if they can talk, they should be able to tell us about their feelings.  But that is a skill that develops over time as their brains slowly grow the connections between emotion, thoughts, and appropriate vocabulary.   Meanwhile, instead of giving us a reasoned discussion, they act out.

Bottom line is, "acting out" is a child putting behavior to her emotions when we wish she would use words instead.   And if we get stuck on dealing only with the behavior, we miss an opportunity to help our children learn to manage their emotions at a deeper level.

For more about acting out, tune in next time...

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