‘Acting Out’ And Childhood Trauma

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Young people who express their psychological turmoil by directing their negative feelings OUTWARD onto the environment (eg vandalism) or other people (eg violence) are performing what psychologists term externalising behaviours. This is also known as, more colloquially, ‘ACTING OUT.’

These behaviours are in contrast to internalising behaviours such as anxiety and depression by which young people may turn their negative feelings inwards into themselves. However, it is important to point out that the two types (externalized behaviour and internalized behaviour) very often co-exist within the same person; for example, a teenager who is very depressed may also be sometimes aggressive and violent (indeed, it is certainly worth noting here that both clinical depression and violence are linked to low levels in the brain of the neurotransmitter serotonin).

But let’s return to look specifically at acting out/externalising behaviours:

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Externalizing behaviours can be split into three groups. These are:

1) Aggression/Violence

2) Anti-Social Behaviour  (Non-Violent)

3) Hyperavtivity

Let’s look at each of these three categories in turn:

1) Aggression/Violence:

These may take the form of both verbal and physical behaviour (at the most extreme end of the spectrum it may even involve the use of weapons).

This type of externalizing behaviour is more likely to occur in boys.

Furthermore, whilst boys are more likely to employ the use of physical aggression, girls are more likely to make use of what is known as ‘relational’ aggression (Hadlet, 2003), such as excluding another girl, in a spiteful manner calculated to cause emotional harm, from their social group.

Feschbach, 1970, further proposed that aggression could also be divided into two other types : HOSTILE AGGRESSION and INSTRUMENTAL AGGRESSION. Let’s briefly look at what he meant by each of these:

HOSTILE AGGRESSION:

This refers to hot-bloodied, spontaneous, impulsive, reactive AGGRESSION involving loss of control of powerful and intense emotions. The aggressor tends not to benefit from this type of aggression and often, in fact, makes matters worse for him/herself (it is not coldly calculated aggression).

INSTRUMENTAL AGGRESSION:

This refers to cold-bloodied, calculated, manipulative aggession by the use of which the aggressor hopes/plans to derive personal benefit.

What Are The Causes Of Such Aggressive/Violent Externalizing Behaviours In Young People?

Causes are both genetic and environmental. They include:

-modelling (learned behaviour)

– abuse

– neglect

– being bullied at school

– hormonal influence

– an imbalance of certain neurotransmitters (eg. serotonin – see above).

Young people who display a significant level of aggression and violence are at higher risk than average of gaining criminal convictions as adults.

2) Anti-Social Behaviour (Non-Violent):

This may involve stealing/theft, vandalism, pathological lying, excessive use of drugs/alcohol. As in the case of aggressive/violent behaviour (see above) boys are more prone to this particular form of externalised behaviour than are girls.

What Are The Causes Of Such Anti-Social Externalizing Behaviours In Young People?

Again, causes can be both environmental and genetic. They include modelling/learned behaviour, ethnic conflict (Feschbach, 1998), abuse, neglect and genetic inheritance.

As in the case of aggressive and violent behaviour, young people who exhibit non-violent, anti – social behaviours are more likely to acquire criminal convictions as adults.

Research suggests that young people displaying high levels of anti-social behaviour may benefit from Empathy Training (Fascenbach, 1982) in school with the aim of encouraging their pro-social behaviour and improving their self-image (many young people who frequently behave anti-socially have low levels of self-esteem).

3) Hyperactivity:

Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may:

a) be hyperactive eg. restless, impulsive

b) have a poor attention span eg. easily distractable, poor powers of concentration

c) have symptoms of both of the above

As is the case with aggression/violence and anti-social behaviour, boys are more likely to suffer from this condition than are girls.

Young people who suffer from hyperactivity, like young people who display excessive aggression and anti-social behaviour are more likely to be convicted of criminal activities as adults.

What Are The Possible Causes Of Hyperactivity?

Causes of this condition are not fully understood but research suggests genetics, brain structure and disruptions of brain functionality are involved.

A Note On Possible Future Development Of Anti-Social Personality Disorder:

Lynam et. al., 1988, carried out research which suggested that young people who demonstrate a combination of :

– hyperactivity

– conduct problems

– attention deficitsdeficits

and

– high levels of impulsivity

are at especially increased risk of developing Anti-Social Personality Disorder (this used to be called ‘psychopathy’) as adults.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE( FAHE).

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Copyright 2015 Child Abuse, Trauma and Recovery

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