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Challenging behaviour in children

If you're experiencing challenging behaviour from your child, here are our tips for what you can do and where to get help.

In this guide we provide information and strategies for parents of primary aged children. Some suggestions may also feel appropriate for older children and young people.

What is challenging behaviour?

Just like us, children behave differently at different times. Feeling upset, sad, cross, frustrated and lots of other kinds of emotions is a normal and healthy part of their life. Many children go through phases of testing boundaries, and they are likely to behave in ways that are harder to manage when they are tired, ill or stressed. It is normal for younger children to have tantrums sometimes, while older children may sometimes shout, storm out or lash out.

When we talk about ‘challenging behaviour’, we mean behaviours that are persistent and difficult for both you and your child to manage. This includes things like:

  • Having lots of angry outbursts
  • Regularly shouting, swearing and being very argumentative
  • Frequently hitting, biting or kicking others
  • Kicking, smashing or damaging things in their home or school
  • Being unkind or bullying towards other family members or children
  • Persistently getting into trouble at school.
Challenging behaviour is exhausting and demoralising. In our family it often leads to everyone feeling less positive and only picking out the negative behaviours, which is so hard not to do. When we notice that we have all gotten stuck in a negative rut, we make an effort to pick up on and name some positives, however small, and this helps us move through a difficult time.
Parent

How can I talk to my child about their behaviour?

Your child's behaviour is a communication about how they’re feeling. When your child is acting out, it can be useful to think of an iceberg. The difficult behaviour is the tip, but there are likely to be a range of emotions hidden under the surface.

By opening up a conversation with your child, you can find out more about how they’re feeling and what’s going on for them.

  1. Find a suitable time and place to talk. Your child might find it easier to talk if you start the conversation while doing an activity. Have a look at our list of activities for some ideas.
  2. Make it clear that the behaviour is the problem, and not them. Let them know that it’s okay to feel however they feel, whether that’s sad, angry, worried or something else, and that you can work together to find new ways of managing these feelings.
  3. Explain why the behaviour is not okay so they understand. For example, you might say that while it’s normal to feel angry, it hurts other people when they hit.
  4. Be curious, empathetic and non-judgmental. Focus on listening and trying to understand things from their perspective.
  5. Use simple phrases such as ‘I notice there is a lot of shouting happening’, ‘I think something might be upsetting you’, ‘I feel worried you’re not happy’, and ‘I need you to know you can talk to me about what’s going on’.
  6. Reassure them that you love them and want to help them feel happier and enjoy things again.

How can I help my child?

  1. Set clear boundaries and routines, and stick to these as much as you can. You could do this by creating a family agreement covering things like screen-time limits, family meals and times for getting up and going to bed.
  2. Follow through on consequences. Your child may respond better if you give a warning before the consequence, so they have an opportunity to change their behaviour. After the consequence has been given, it’s important to chat together about what happened and return to positive interactions.
  3. Give your child positive praise. Notice and encourage them when they demonstrate the kinds of behaviours you have asked for, and be specific about why you’re praising them.
  4. Talk together about activities that help them to express their feelings and calm down. This might be drawing or painting, doing something active like running, jumping or their favourite sport, reading a book, writing a story, baking or making something out of playdough or Lego.
  5. Help your child understand their feelings. When you are curious about your child's feelings, this helps them understand and find words to describe them. You can also help them think about the signs that let them know they might be about to ‘blow their top’ – such as feeling hot, muscles clenching or breathing more heavily.
  6. Try to stay calm. You may feel frustrated, angry or overwhelmed when your child is behaving in challenging ways – and this is completely normal. Try not to react or argue back when things are like this. Give yourself and your child a chance to have some space before you talk about it.
  7. Spend quality time with your child. Find things you can enjoy together – such as going to the park, playing a board game, cooking something or watching a favourite film. As a parent you will often be juggling different things, so try to set aside time when you can be really present with your child.
  8. Talk to your child’s school. Share your concerns with their teacher and find out what their experience is. How does your child behave at school? Is it similar or different to the way they behave at home? If your child’s teacher has found something that works, it may be helpful to try it at home to provide consistency.
Reading stories together that talk about feelings has helped my child get used to the words – giving them a way to talk about positive and difficult things.
Parent
Remembering to explain why can help – so rather than just shouting ‘sit down’ at the table, I try to let them know that I’d like them to sit down so we can enjoy eating and that we can go and play when we’ve finished.
Parent

Finding professional help

Counselling and therapy

If your child needs support to help them understand and manage their feelings, they may benefit from seeing a counsellor or therapist. Therapists working with younger children will usually do this through play and arts activities such as painting, drawing and making things.

  • You can ask your GP to refer your child for counselling or therapy, either through the NHS or another local service.
  • You may be able to access free or subsidised counselling through your child’s school. You can talk to your child’s teacher or another member of staff to find out what’s available, and ask them to make a referral.
  • You can search online for free counselling services in your area, and the Youth Access directory can help you do this.
  • If it’s an affordable option, you can find a private counsellor, therapist or family therapist using the directories listed in our guide.

Getting support from your child’s school

As well as counselling, there may be other services provided by your child’s school that can help, such as mentoring, learning support, peer buddying and clubs and activities. Be open with the school about what’s going on and ask what support they can provide.

Speaking to your GP

If you’re worried about your child’s mental health or wellbeing, you can speak to your GP (with or without your child) about next steps and finding support. Together you can discuss whether referral to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and/or an assessment by a mental health specialist is needed.

Identifying additional needs

Sometimes, challenging behaviour can be a sign of an additional need or developmental difficulty – such as autism or difficulties hearing or speaking – which your child may need specialist help with. If you think this could be the case, speak to your GP or your child’s teacher to discuss whether your child needs a referral for further assessment.

My favourite phrase when things are tough is: this too shall pass
Parent
Sometimes even just acknowledging with my husband that things have gotten really tough somehow eases them a bit
Parent

More information and advice

Family Line

Provides information and support around family issues, as well as longer-term help through Befrienders and Counsellors.

Phone: 0808 802 6666

Text: 07537 404 282

Email: [email protected]

Opening times: 9am - 9pm, Monday - Friday

Contact

Provides support, information and advice for families with children with disabilities.

Free online chat service available. 

Phone: 0808 808 3555

Email: [email protected]

Opening times: 9.30 - 5pm, Monday - Friday

Gingerbread

Provides support and advice for single parents in England and Wales.

Phone: 0808 802 0925

Opening times: 10am - 6pm, Mondays; 10am - 1pm and 5 - 7pm, Wednesdays; 10am - 4pm, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays

One Parent Families Scotland

Provides support, information and advice for single parents in Scotland.

Online chat service available.

Phone: 0808 801 0323

Email: [email protected]

Opening times: 9.30am - 4pm, Monday - Friday

Youth Wellbeing Directory

Lists local services where you can find support for young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

Childline

If you’re under 19 you can confidentially call, chat online or email about any problem big or small.

Sign up for a free Childline locker (real name or email address not needed) to use their free 1-2-1 counsellor chat and email support service.

Can provide a BSL interpreter if you are deaf or hearing-impaired.

Hosts online message boards where you can share your experiences, have fun and get support from other young people in similar situations.

Phone: 0800 1111

Opening times: 9am - midnight, 365 days a year

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