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Acting Out

Acting out originally referred to the psychodynamic concept of expressing repressed impulses, but now it more generally refers to maladaptive behavior exhibited by children and adolescents. Rather than coping with the resurfacing of negative emotions (i.e., anxiety, fear) associated with past traumatic experiences or a dysfunctional family environment, the child or adolescent acts out these emotions by engaging in externalizing behaviors. These behaviors range from the less serious (i.e., disobedience, moodiness) to the more severe (i.e., suicidal tendencies, violence). Acting out is often associated with the development of psychopathology, such as antisocial or borderline personality disorder, or is viewed as evidence of a mood disorder; it can also refer to rebellious behavior exhibited by children and, especially, adolescents attempting to assert independence. The interaction of several factors, including ineffective parenting, temperament, and peer rejection can reinforce or exacerbate acting out behavior, leading to delinquency or psychopathology in adolescence or childhood.



Forehand, Rex, and Nicholas Long. "Outpatient Treatment of the Acting Out Child: Procedures, Long-Term Follow-Up Data, and Clinical Problems."Advances in Behavior Research and Therapy 10 (1988):129-177.

Nielsen, G. Borderline and Acting-Out Adolescents: A Developmental Approach. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1983.

Patterson, Gerald, Barbara DeBaryshe, and Elizabeth Ramsey. "ADevelopmental Perspective on Antisocial Behavior." American Psychologist 44 (1989):329-335.

Jeannette M. Alvarez

Gillian S. Garfinkle

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Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 1