Definition: Acting out describes a common teen pattern of exhibiting inappropriate behavior that is covering up deeper feelings or issues. Teens are well known for demonstrating how they feel through their misbehavior.
Originally the term acting out was used by Freud to describe certain behaviors that occur during the process of psychotherapy. The term is now used casually by mental health professionals to describe this tendency in teens to express unhappiness through their actions.
Most teens do not understand this is what they are doing. A primary goal of treatment is helping them understand the connections between how they feel and how they act.
Acting Out Example
John, age 16, is being defiant to his teachers. When asked to do something he responds in a sarcastic manner, often cussing at the teacher.
John has been acting this way ever since a girl he cared for deeply broke up with him to date another guy. On the inside he feels rejected and insecure about himself. On the outside he acts tough and pretends he doesn't care what happens to him in an effort to shield himself from being hurt more. John isn't aware that his distress about this breakup is the reason for his acting out behavior at school.
While acting out can often be connected to the issues a teen is struggling with, nothing in their lives changes until a teen begins to deal with the reasons behind the behavior. When parents see a teen acting out this is a strong warning sign the teen is hurting and needs help to effectively express their pain and deal with what is truly troubling them.