Out of Character Behavior

character masks[Prefer listening to reading? Listen to our podcast episode, Is Your Child’s Behavior Out of Character?]

At least 15% of the time when I’m talking with an estranged parent in therapy, they’ll say something like this:

“My son’s behavior that night was totally out of character. I’d never seen him act that way,”
“It’s out of character for my daughter not to return phone calls.” If you’ve ever felt that way about your adult child(ren), this month’s newsletter is for you.

Surprising Behavior

What seems out of character may actually be an adult child expressing an essential part of who s/he is.

When I was still living in my parents’ home, they would have been shocked if I’d come home one day, dumped myself into a chair in the living room, and started crying my eyes out. That was just not me. It would have been out of character.

However, it’s also true that in my family, nobody was particularly comfortable with tears. Even if I’d wanted to, I wouldn’t have cried in front of my family if I could help it.

As I grew older and spent more time outside the home, I learned that some people are perfectly comfortable crying in front of others. This was a revelation to me.

I cried in front of my family during a visit when I was in my 30s. They were dumbfounded.

It was out of character for me. But it also broke my family’s unspoken rules about how (and whether) to express certain emotions.

Family Routines

All families fall into routines of behavior. These tend to solidify into “rules of conduct” for each member. They’re not necessarily spoken or even conscious; they can simply be what’s normal in a particular family.

Family members develop expectations of each other based on these rules. But the rules don’t always reflect each member’s true nature.

Someone with an outgoing and gregarious temperament may unconsciously dial down her energy around family, who may be quieter. The silent rule here may be, “Don’t disturb others by talking loudly or too fast.”

An emotionally sensitive person may constantly steel himself against the aggressive communication style of other family members. His family’s unspoken rule could be something like, “Anyone can openly express displeasure at any time.”

When your child does something that seems out of character, it could be an opportunity for you to learn something about his or her feelings, desires, values, goals or beliefs.

When they show you a different side of themselves through unexpected behavior, reflect on the possibility that you’re seeing something real and true about your child.

The more you learn about the adult your child has become (or is becoming), the easier it may be to connect with him or her.

Unspoken Rules

Use the opportunity presented by unexpected behavior to examine your family’s unspoken rules. These rules are neither right nor wrong, but they’re usually invisible and it’s interesting to shine a light on them.

Here are a few examples of typical family rules:

  • Disappointment (and/or another emotion) should not be expressed
  • Only certain professions make acceptable careers
  • No raised voices in the home
  • Family members’ plans must be shared
  • Personal privacy is sacrosanct
  • Everyone practices the same religion
  • Certain political views are unwelcome
  • Religious, but not political, differences are tolerated (or vice versa)
  • No one must keep secrets from the family
  • Only certain members can know about certain things
  • Etc., etc., etc.

“Out of character” behavior may break unspoken family rules. See if you can uncover some of your family’s implicit rules and expectations through behavior from your child that seems out of character.

In any case, unusual behavior in your child, except maybe in the case of brain injury, usually has a reason that makes sense if you look hard enough, and if you expect to find one.

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