Supporting Children with Challenging Behaviour

Home/Blog/Supporting Children with Challenging Behaviour
  • Photo by Melissa Askew on UnSplash

Supporting Children with Challenging Behaviour

It may sound counter intuitive as often the last thing we want to do when a child is hitting, kicking, throwing things or screaming is to sit with them and engage with them. However, this is often exactly what a child needs. Children are innately driven to seek our connection, be valued by us and to have their voices heard. When children do not feel that the adults in their lives are “hearing or seeing them” this can result in undesirable behaviours. Their behaviour may appear completely unreasonable to us and sometimes their behaviour doesn’t exactly “match” the situation, but at the bottom of it all is a child seeking some connection with someone, for someone to understand they are having a hard time and that they need some support.

Our job as a parent is to try and take a step back and consider our child and the context before we step in and intervene. When we can take a step back, really think about what might be going on for your child, and then responding, we often approach the situation with a clearer and calmer headspace. Children always know what they are doing when they do it…but they don’t often know WHY!

Impulsiveness is a key trait of the early years and that is a combination of brain immaturity, egocentricity and developing social skills. Children are terribly impulsive (as are adults if we are being honest!) but unlike us they do not have mature enough brain structures to regulate these impulses. When we as adults get angry and we want to yell, scream and generally throw a tantrum… we don’t. Children get the very same impulses but there is next to nothing stopping their little bodies from following that impulse. So, when they feel overwhelmed or feel a big and loud emotion they will yell, scream and have a tantrum as their little bodies go into fight and flight from their inability to regulate their own emotions and behaviour.
A key to decreasing the occurrences of and level of challenging behaviours we need to look at connecting with our child when they are struggling with an emotion or situation. Connecting with them during these times ensures that they do not feel alone in their emotions, that their isn’t anything to be afraid of in the way they are feeling and are ultimately supported by calm and confident adults. Connecting with them can look as simple as “I’m here for a hug when you are ready”, or sitting with them as they cry, or acknowledging you understand how they are feeling. Attempting to talk to a child when they are quite upset will often only make the matter worse. The key is to connect with them first, calm them down and THEN talk to them about the situation and find a reasonable and desirable outcome.

There is a wonderful saying - “you cannot make a child behave better by making them feel worse”. This is a great saying to help us flip our mindsets to reflecting on the way we respond to children in these moments of challenging behaviour. Especially if these moments trigger strong emotions in us as well! It can be very hard for us as parents to not be triggered by our children’s loud displays of emotion, but when we look at these feelings for what they are (simply feelings) we can help them through these emotions to help them learn to regulate the feelings themselves.

Connecting with a child who is displaying challenging behaviour can be as simple as sitting down with them, holding them close, allowing them to feel their emotions with you there to support them if they need, or as easy as acknowledging their feelings and reasoning for the behaviour and helping them to come down from those big feelings in a supported and empathetic way. There are many ways that we can connect with children and each child will want a different type of connection at different times. You know your child and you will be able to make a judgment call as to what they need in each moment. We don’t need to agree that the feeling is appropriate, that is not our job. ALL feelings are valid! As each child is individual and feel their own emotions to different situations their reaction may seen unreasonable to you but it isn’t to them. Our job as their parent is to support them in their emotions, and once ready, guide and support them to make a better choice in their behavioural response the next time they face that situation.

The idea of connection during these times of heightened emotion is to simply lower their anxiousness, decrease any uncomfortable feelings and let them know that even know they are showing these big, loud, scary emotions that we are not shaken by them, we can take them and help them through them. Regulation is a skill that needs to be learnt, just like walking and talking. So taking a considered approach to helping children regulate their emotions will help them to be able to calm themselves, behave more appropriately to situations that challenge them.

The more opportunities for connection when our children feel overwhelmed by their own emotions, the better they will feel (and quicker!) and the less they will escalate to those levels of uncomfortableness and reactivity in the future as they learn to navigate the world better themselves.