Managing challenging behaviour in children

Managing challenging behaviour is one of the biggest tests any parent will face. From toddler tantrums to pre-teen arguments over clothes and mobile phones, no parent or carer ever gets a free pass.

Maintaining safe boundaries for your child while instilling confidence and independence can often feel like an impossible balancing act. This in itself is hard enough without the knowledge that, if left unchecked, continued challenging behaviour can damage the relationship between parent and child.

As the largest provider of school-based counselling in Scotland, The Spark knows what makes children tick. Using therapeutic insights from our youth counsellors this short guide aims to help parents and carers develop a greater understanding of how to manage challenging and potentially disruptive behaviour.

Tips for parents and carers

Broadly there are three points to consider when faced with a child’s challenging behaviour:

  • Challenging behaviour is a form of communication
  • Don’t play it out in front of a crowd
  • The value of self-reflection

Challenging behaviour is a form of communication

A natural reaction to challenging behaviour is to deal with the immediate issue. The idea of stepping back and trying to understand what has triggered this particular tantrum or strop is often the last thing on our minds.

However, the solution to challenging behaviour lies in understanding its source.

Challenging behaviour is a form of communication. It serves a particular purpose for the child as a coping mechanism for underlying emotional distress. Therefore repeated acts of disobedience or disruption at home are likely to be in response to an emotional trigger.

Tensions between parents, the partial absence of a parent or problems at school can be issues that trigger challenging behaviour. Younger children will lack the ability and confidence to communicate their emotional state. Older children may not consciously understand that such issues are the root of their behaviour.

Hence ‘acting out’ is the best option available to them to try and manage the emotional upheaval they are experiencing and raise awareness of their distress.

Observe their behaviour to understand it

Observing the child is important in order to understand if certain circumstances – direct orders from a parent or bedtime routine for example – initiate the challenging behaviour. With this insight parents and carers are better placed to try and put in place support for the child.

For example, if the child is missing interaction with a parent due to their long working hours, a more flexible approach might be required. Instead of staying late at the office, it might be more suitable for the parent to be home for dinner and/or bath and bedtime routine and then complete their work at home in the evening.

Where a child is developmentally mature enough, it can be helpful to discuss the behaviour with them. At all times emphasising that any discussion or enquiry it because you love them and want to help them deal with the difficult emotions they are experiencing. Where appropriate it can also be helpful to engage with other parties (e.g. their school) and healthcare or wellbeing professionals.

By attempting to understand the triggers for such behaviour, we are better able to deal with the source problem and ultimately reduce the likelihood of repetition.

 Don’t play it out in front of a crowd

The power and influence of peer pressure and the principle of saving face is just as common amongst children as it is teenagers. Their attitude and behaviour can change when their siblings and/or friends are present.

It is therefore important to consider removing the ‘audience’ from any exchanges with your child. This is particularly the case when attempting to deal with disruptive behaviour or attempting a serious discussion about the source of the behaviour.

Try to find a quiet, private place to talk to them about the source of their behaviour and the emotions driving it. By creating a sense of safety and confidentiality, children exhibiting disruptive behaviour are often calmer and better able to engage with their emotions.

Conversely, discussing the source of their behaviour and/or disciplining them in front of siblings/peers gives no opportunity to create that sense of safety and privacy. This could exacerbate or entrench their challenging behaviour.

The value of self-reflection

Self-reflection can be a valuable tool for parents and carers in attempting to manage the negative emotions which triggered your child’s challenging behaviour.

In this context, it is simply a process of reflecting on the current situation in relation to our own past experiences. If a child is struggling to settle into a new school or class, think back to your own similar experiences. By recalling how you felt at those times you will be better able to empathise with their current emotional state.

Reducing or removing our own emotional conflict creates the space to understand and empathise with the child.  Feelings of frustration and anger can cloud our ability to empathise with a child in distress and to try to understand their unique situation.

By reflecting on situations from our own past when similar conflicts occurred we can challenge our own negative emotions. Regularly these are the emotions that force us to choose punitive punishment over a more empathetic, positive and corrective form of discipline.

Counselling for children and young people

If your son, daughter or family member is struggling with something right now speaking to a professional counsellor is an option.

Counselling offers a safe, confidential and non-judgemental space in which young people can discuss any issues that are upsetting them at school, at home or at play.

Find out more about our counselling services for families and children.

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