Is My Kid Just Acting Out or Is Something More Happening?

There are a lot of reasons your child might be acting out. 

And right now, months into online learning and hardly seeing their friends and being stuck inside either for pandemic safety or because of cold weather–it’s likely you’re experiencing those little meltdowns way more than ever. 

Sometimes these behavioral outbursts are just that–outbursts. Moments where their frustration or upset has gotten the better of them and they lashed out. This doesn’t make them a bad child, or a “problem” child. While it certainly isn’t pleasant to deal with these breakdowns, they are things we can help our kids learn to cope with. We can teach them to slow down and think about consequences, and give them things to do to help them express their feelings in a healthier way. 

But sometimes these outbursts are a sign of something bigger than momentary frustration. 

Just like adults, kids can feel burned out. And just like adults, kids can struggle with anxiety, depression, ADHD, or other mental health concerns. But unlike adults, kids aren’t able to recognize those things within themselves on their own. They’ll feel frustrated and overwhelmed, and they will know something is wrong, but they don’t have the knowledge that we do to be able to say, “oh, these mean thoughts in my head are coming from my anxiety” the way we can reason it out once we recognize our symptoms. Instead, they deal with their feelings the only ways they know how to: crying, yelling, throwing tantrums, zoning out, etc. 

We have to be the ones to give them that language. For example, you can teach your anxious child to notice when their “anxiety monster” shows up, and help them learn things they can do (coping skills) to make the anxiety monster go away. 

In order to do that we need to be able to recognize signs of depression and anxiety in our kids. We need to be able to hone in on the difference between when our child is just misbehaving because they don’t like something, and when they are acting out because they are struggling and need support in some way. 

Some questions to ask yourself: 

  • Did this behavior only start when my child was told “no”?
  • Is there a clear “solution” to the problem in my child’s head? (They are upset because they don’t want to leave a friend’s house, so they start yelling or crying, thinking that will get you to let them stay longer. The solution in their mind, is staying longer at the friend’s house). 
  • Did this behavior seem to come out of nowhere?
  • Is my child inconsolable no matter how much problem solving we do?
  • Is this behavior more frequent than ever? 
  • Is there a pattern to the behavior that I can notice? (Ex.: when my child tries new things, they get overwhelmed and cry. No amount of consoling or reassurance helps them calm down. This happens every time they need to do something they have never tried before.) 
  • Is this behavior affecting my child’s ability to form or maintain relationships with others?
  • Does the behavior hinder the day to day functioning of your child?

The first two questions are examples of situations where it most likely is just your kid acting like a kid.  Sometimes kids just throw tantrums and there’s nothing we can do about it! 

The others indicate that there is something going on with your child that they don’t know how to communicate. If you’re concerned that your child’s behavior might be indicative of a larger mental health struggle, here are signs of depression and anxiety to look out for in your child: 

Signs of depression in children: 

  • Increased irritability or anger
  • Frequently feeling sad
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Increased emotional sensitivity (more sensitive to rejection, criticism, etc.) 
  • Outbursts 
  • Aches + pains that don’t go away with treatment 
  • Difficulty sleeping, or sleeping more than usual 
  • No interest in usual hobbies 
  • Low self esteem 
  • Social isolation 
  • Sudden change in academic performance 

Signs of anxiety in children: 

  • Difficulty falling & staying asleep
  • Resistance to being alone
  • Startles easily
  • Biting nails 
  • Being overly self critical 
  • Loss of appetite
  • Withdrawal from peers/social isolation 
  • Frequent complaints of aches + pains (headaches, stomach aches, etc.) 
  • Trouble staying still (constant squirming, fidgeting, etc.) 

If you need help supporting your child in these hard times, you’re not alone! Our clinicians can help you come up with a plan to deal with them that’s specific to your situation.

Additional Resource: Talking to Children About Cancer

-Lindsay N Sanner, LSCSW, RPT