By Steven T. Padgitt, Ph.D.

What does it mean when a school counselor or other mental health professional uses the term acting-out when referring to a teen's behavior? This question has been asked by countless parents. While school officials and mental health professionals may define it differently, there are ultimately more similarities than differences and the differences may, in large part, be due to the role the adult has with the adolescent. Acting-out is a term that essentially refers to behavior that is: outside the normal range, maladaptive, self defeating (or even self destructive) and is socially unacceptable. The concept describes behavior that acts-out powerful feelings that are too painful to experience consciously. Acting-out may occur in school, at home or in the world at large. It may be of a normal sort or may reflect serious emotional disturbance.

School personnel, who are struggling "in the trenches" with a classroom full of highly charged adolescents, may find it necessary to take disciplinary action in an attempt to alter problem behavior and bring the adolescent's conduct back into alignment with what is socially acceptable. On the other side, the mental health clinician, who has the luxury of more objectivity and only one therapy session a week with the acting-out teen, may be inclined to look to the underlying reasons for the unacceptable behavior in order to remedy the problem.

In the case of the normal acting-out teen, the solution to the problematic behavior may be in helping him understand the conflictual situation, explore the unconscious feelings and change the problem behavior. For example, Jenny came into my office at the insistence of her mother, due to their chronic conflict. She was doing well in school and in social relationships with peers, but not with her mom. In therapy we came to find that she was unable to talk about her deceased father without breaking into tears. She guarded against talking about him whenever possible because it was so painful to think of him. Further exploration led to the discovery that she had never grieved his death and instead attempted to avoid feeling anything. Hence, she acted-out her feelings rather than confronting them. Once she overtly grieved his death she was able to talk about him without crying and was able to get along better with her mom.

Concerning a more severe problem, it is important to understand what created the need to hang on so tenaciously to the maladaptive behavior. For example, John, who had grown up with an alcoholic mother, found himself unable to say no to his friends and found that he could not deny himself the abuse of drugs despite his desire to stop using them. His therapy led him to the discovery that his self esteem was so low that the only thing that stopped his emotional pain in sobriety was altering his consciousness with drugs. In therapy he learned that he was capable of far more than he believed. As he began feeling better about himself and learned about the control he really had over his life, his drug use decreased dramatically and eventually he found it unnecessary to abuse drugs. The key to stopping acting-out behavior is knowing what it means.