Last November Gabor Mate spoke at the Alberta School Board Association Conference on the idea of why kids act out. He suggested that when things don’t make sense and kids are struggling to understand and express their confusion that they often act out. We punish kids who act out and this pushes the feelings underground or sometimes escalates them and it does nothing to help the child understand and so no progress is made.I was talking with a friend about facilitating adult learning and public meetings and she commented on how much acting out behavior she sees in adults now. We both speculated that it might have something to do with this idea of acting out – as the world is so complex now that people are often confused and so they act out – they rant, they attack, they push their ideas or position etc.
So how do we deal with this acting out? Well punishment, judgement, etc. don’t work. I know in my facilitation work that actually inviting the confusion and then developing questions to explore does help. It also helps to provide processes that allow people to express their ideas and confusion and then work them through by using conversation and slowly moving to understanding. My work partner in Sask. Jack Mitchell often says “let’s share hallucinations” and when we do, we often find clarity in the middle ground between our strong opinions. I think the reason that this works is that it addresses what Dr. Mate says is a key cause of acting out – we get stressed and this stimulates us and then we fight, flight or freeze and what we need is a way to settle. Being near to and talking with others is a way that humans have settled for thousands of years. As a facilitator I can help make this happen and if I act as a nurturing person (like a good parent) and I have a calm steady influence then often the group I work with settles and then they can start to learn, to exchange, and this moves us towards understanding.
I’ve been working with some groups around the idea of triangulating our perspectives as a way to create a clearer picture of what is happening and to build understanding as a foundation for informed action. It takes time but it saves the madly off in all directions approach that happens when we don’t create clarity before action. I also think that sometime you have to start moving and then step back and observe (another way of triangulating). This is another way of settling.
On the Democracy Now show of December 24, 2010, Dr. Mate is interviewed and talks about “Acting Out”.
AMY GOODMAN: Gabor Maté, you talk about acting out. What does acting out mean?
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Well, it’s a great question. You see, when we hear the phrase “acting out,” we usually mean that a kid is behaving badly, that a child is being obstreperous, oppositional, violent, bullying, rude. That’s because we don’t know how to speak English anymore. The phrase “acting out” means you’re portraying behavior that which you haven’t got the words to say in language. In a game of charades, you have to act out, because you’re not allowed to speak. If you landed in a country where nobody spoke your language and you were hungry, you would have to literally demonstrate your anger — sorry, your hunger, through behavior, pointing to your mouth or to your empty belly, because you don’t have the words.
My point is that, yes, a lot of children are acting out, but it’s not bad behavior. It’s a representation of emotional losses and emotional lacks in their lives. And whether it’s, again, bullying or a whole set of other behaviors, what we’re dealing with here is childhood stunted emotional development — in some cases, stunted pain development. And rather than trying to control these behaviors through punishments, or even just exclusively through medications, we need to help these kids develop.