Managing challenging behaviour in your child 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. There’s no doubt that the pandemic is having a huge impact on family relationships.

Many of us are balancing working from home with child care and other responsibilities. Whatever your circumstances, this period may be tough on our mental health and our relationships.

Challenging behaviour is a form of communication

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. 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 is 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.

Exploring emotions

If your child is feeling an emotion such as sadness or anger you might be tempted to give them all the reasons why they don’t need to feel sad or angry. This is a natural parental response and might be very effective with your child. However, it can backfire as the child feels you don’t really understand their feelings. An alternative is to really explore that emotion and validate it using a technique called ALVS:
• ATTEND – to the visual or behavioural signs
  “You are very tearful today”

• LABEL – guess the emotion:
 “You seem sad, angry, anxious, scare…”.
  Your child may or may not respond – and may correct you

• VALIDATE THE EMOTION – again you might have to make a guess
  “You are sad because you are really missing your best friend.”
  Follow this up by saying something like:
  “I would be sad, angry etc if I was in that situation”
  “I also feel that way about lots of things at the moment”

• SOOTHE – this depends on the emotion but could be a hug, giving some space and coming back to them later, or a distraction:
  “Let me give you a hug”
  “I can see you don’t want to talk right now and that is ok, we can talk later”

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.

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.

There’s bound to be some tension in the family at the moment – it’s very much expected that children will act out as part of the way they show stress – and we are often less able than normal to keep our responses proportional.

At times like this you may need to expect and allow more meltdowns – they are dealing with an extraordinary set of circumstances.

The World Health Organisation has been promoting a three-stage model for dealing with acting out:


At the first sign of misbehaviour try and divert onto something else – suggesting a game, a call with a relative, or your walk if you haven’t been out yet for your daily movement.


If redirecting doesn’t work and you can feel your temper fraying, try to take a 10 second pause. Take a few deep breaths and come back to the situation in a calmer frame of mind.

Taking this further parenting expert Sarah Ockwell-Smith recommends the mnemonic PETER to help:

P = Pause. Don’t react immediately. 
E = Empathise. Try to understand how your child is, or was, feeling and their point of view. 
T = Think. Think about different ways you could respond and what would happen as a result. 
E = Exhale. Take a deep breath, breathe out, relax your shoulders and picture your anger leaving. 
R = Respond. Now is the time to respond to your child, not before.

It’s great if you can acknowledge the emotion - showing that you understand how they're feeling, that it is (likely) a reasonable reaction to a strange situation, and that even so, it needs to change.  

Written by: Kirsty Lilley

Kirsty has delivered mindfulness and self-compassion courses to a wide variety of workplaces during her career and is also a trained psychotherapist and coach. She has worked at a strategic level within organisations developing wellbeing policies and been responsible for developing training courses on improving mental health and wellbeing, as well as courses designed to help line managers support people with mental health difficulties effectively and continually works towards the reduction of stigma within workplace settings. Kirsty is committed to an integrated and compassionate approach when helping others to fulfil their potential.

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