Responding to Challenging Behaviour

As a parent or carer you are the main provider of support for your child during these unprecedented times.

We are all experiencing changes to our normal routines. Your child may find it difficult to communicate what they are feeling, but they will be affected by the changes.

Your child may:

  • Be missing people from school
  • Be frustrated that they are unable to do things they normally enjoy
  • Be aware that you are dealing with extra pressure (i.e. work, food shop)
  • Find it hard to accept that things are different and they may not be able to do something now
Why are they behaving this way?

We all respond to situations in different ways. If your child is showing challenging behaviour, they may be finding it difficult to communicate their needs and feelings in another way. This behaviour is a signal that they cannot cope with what they are experiencing at the moment.

In order to best respond to your child, try to consider some possible reasons for their behaviour:

For example:

  • Is my child showing undetected pain (e.g. toothache?)
  • Are they trying to avoid a situation they find difficult (e.g. noisy place)?
  • Are they communicating their response to a big life change (e.g. the current situation)?

Your child may also be trying to communicate:

  • Basic needs (tiredness, hunger, thirst, pain, comfort, bladder, bowels)
  • Wanting an object/toy
  • Wanting your attention (Remember wanting attention is not negative in itself: all children need attention)
  • ‘I can’t do this- it’s too difficult’
  • ‘I want to escape or avoid something’
  • ‘I am not being heard’ (frustration)
  • ‘I feel overwhelmed’
  • An emotional/physical response to an event or experience

Here are some other potential triggers:

  • Sensory regulation needs or overload
  • Habit (‘I don’t know what else to do’)
  • Programmed behaviour (if a behaviour worked before, it will be continued)
  • To test a boundary 
  • Having something removed without warning
  • Having to wait for something
What is happening in their brain?

We cannot always decide how we react to situations. When we are stressed, the brain takes over the decision making – this is known as Fight, Flight or Freeze.

For your child, this could be what they are experiencing when they are displaying behaviour that is challenging.

What can I do?

Here are six  steps that you can try when challenging behaviour is displayed:

Step 1:

  • Make sure that everyone is safe
  • Having too many people around can heighten the feeling of anxiety.
  • Move people away from your distressed child if needed 
  • Try to remain calm yourself
  • Be aware of your body language: allow space and distance if safe to do so

Step 2:

  • Remember that if your child is experiencing a strong emotion then it will take them at least 20 minutes to calm down.
  • They won’t be able to calm down instantly, and you should not expect them too.

Step 3:

  • Use a calm and holding voice.
  • Let your child know that you are aware of how they are feeling.
  • Try using gentle tones or song like phrases, like you may talk to a baby
  • Use a firmer reassuring tone if more is needed

Step 4:

  • Talk about what you think your child is experiencing
  • Try to label the emotion – this is a powerful way to connect with your child
  • You can try phrases like:

             ‘It seems like you are …’

             ‘I can see that you are …’

             ‘You seem …’

Try to keep language simple, using short sentences and key words.

Step 5:

We may be tempted to make things ‘better’ by saying:  “Stop crying” or “Come on, stop doing that now”

However, it is more helpful to acknowledge your child’s experience

  • Validate their feelings
  • Let them know you are trying to listen and understand them
  • Reassure them that it is OK to have big feelings

Step 6:

  • Help them calm down (see next section)
  • Encourage your child to communicate their needs/feelings in other ways e.g. using the communication system recommended by the Speech and language therapist such as PECS symbols or signs.
How to help your child to calm

You can try some of the suggestions below to help your child calm down:

  • Use sensory strategies, as recommended by the Occupational Therapist
  • Meditation or breathing exercises
  • Emotional regulation exercises (see video on Parent Forum)
  • Let them know that they are safe and you are with them 
  • Play calming music you know they like – it is a good idea to try to listen to music when they are calm as well

Once your child has heard that you have acknowledged how they are feeling and have returned to a calm state, you can support them to move onto a new task or a new room for example.

Don't forget to look after yourself

Looking after children who show challenging behaviour can be tiring and overwhelming, so please make sure you look after yourself too.

Click here for some Top Tips for Wellbeing, which offers some ways for you and all your family to look after your mental health.

If you have any questions or concerns about your child, please contact your child’s teacher and you can ask them to pass on your number to the arts therapy team.

More advice and support

There is lots of further advice, support and videos available on The Challenging Behaviour Foundation website:

Supporting your Loved One at Home information sheet:

With thanks to: The Challenging Behaviour Foundation. Registered charity no. 1060714.