Many children who have been emotionally hurt and traumatized ‘act out’ their intense feelings of confusion, pain, fear, loneliness, isolation and vulnerability, which are too strong and powerful to contain, by expressing these feelings through negative behaviour such as getting into fights, extreme verbal aggression, vandalism, getting drunk or numbing themselves with drugs.
This is, of course, commonly known as ‘acting out’ and children express their pain in this way as they are unable to articulate their feelings, understand the cause of these feelings, or mentally process their traumatic experiences in a meaningful way.
‘Acting out’, then, is an unconscious, desperate expression of inner turmoil and of a profound need for help, love, compassion and understanding, however counterintuitive and paradoxical this may sound to some.
Tragically, instead of receiving the help they so desperately need, such children are all too often criticized, disparaged, rejected and labelled as ‘bad’ by the very people (i.e. their parents) who are responsible for inducing the child’s highly distressed condition, rather like injecting a person with a cancer causing agent and then blaming them for being ill ; or punching someone in the face and then blaming them for bleeding over you.
This, of course, can be psychologically crushing for the child, destroying his/her confidence and self-esteem, inducing depression, anxiety, self-harming behaviour and alcohol/drug dependence.
Additionally, the child may go through the rest of his/her life (in the absence of effective therapy) feeling utterly unlovable, intrinsically and irrevocably flawed in terms of character, unable to form healthy relationships, deeply mistrustful of others, cynical, pessimistic and intermittently suicidal.
Also, being labelled as ‘bad’ is likely to intensify the child’s sense of injustice, isolation and rejection, increasing his/her feelings of anger ; this anger may then become a protective shield – a thin and flimsy veneer, unconsciously engineered, to conceal deeply entrenched feelings of powerlessness, vulnerability and despair.
Alternatively, the child may try to cope by ‘shutting off’ emotionally (when this reaches a clinically significant level it is referred to as ‘dissociation‘) and may, as a psychological defense, affect a kind of indifferent, insouciant, disinterested, ‘couldn’t-care-less’ attitude in an attempt to conceal feelings of vulnerability and a fear of being perceived as ‘weak’.
The earlier children suffering in this way can be identified, and remedial, therapeutic interventions instigated, the greater the chance that psychological damage is minimized, allowing the individual to go on to live a satisfying, fulfilling and productive life.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).