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Difficult and challenging behaviours

School age is an exciting time for children. It's a time when your child makes new friends, meets new people and becomes more independent. They also come across new rules, routines and experiences - so do you! But sometimes this new world takes getting used to. Worrying about this can affect your child's behaviour and wellbeing.

If your child is finding these changes difficult, that's OK. There is plenty of help, advice and guidance to support you and your child through this time.

Difficult and challenging behaviours

Read time: 4 minutes

We may call them our "little angels", but there will be times when this couldn't seem less true! All children act up sometimes. Learning to understand why is one of the many important parts of being a parent.

There are all kinds of challenging behaviour, like:

  • Fighting
  • Throwing or kicking objects
  • Temper tantrums
  • Arguing, shouting and swearing
  • Stealing
  • Lying
  • Refusing to follow instructions

These behaviours can be hard to understand and, at times, even embarrassing. But try not to worry. What you do to understand your child's behaviour can help create a stronger bond between the two of you!

Why is my child acting this way?

Just as there are different types of difficult behaviour, there are lots of reasons for it. For example, your child may be:

  • Tired, hungry or feeling unwell
  • Overreacting to little things because they are bothered about something else. Big emotions make it harder for them to keep their cool
  • Annoyed about something at home or at school
  • Struggling with changes to their routine or your family's circumstances
  • Needing attention - we all need a bit of extra love and attention now and again!

Understanding your child's difficult behaviour

It might be useful to keep a diary of your child's behaviour. Write what happens before, during and after the behaviour to see if there is a pattern.

You could also speak to your child's school. Share your concerns with their teacher. Ask if anybody at school has noticed your child showing tricky behaviour.

Children often express their emotions through difficult behaviour. Children don't want to behave badly, but sometimes they don't know how to say what they're feeling. Understanding why they feel the way they do results in a happier child. And better behaviour in future!

Whatever the reason, talking is key to sorting the problem. Now you're probably thinking "How am I going to do that?" Connecting with an emotional child is rarely a simple task! But don't worry, there are plenty of ways to talk to your child and work out why they're behaving the way they are.

Speaking to your child about their behaviour

  • Help them to express themselves. If they find it hard to talk about their feelings, try asking your child to draw how they feel.
  • Use an activity. Your child may find it easier to speak about their feelings if they are doing something they enjoy.
  • Stay calm. Even though you might feel like it, don't get angry. Get down to your child's level, lower your voice and speak calmly – hopefully, they will follow your lead!
  • The behaviour is the problem, not your child. It's important that your child doesn't feel that you are taking issue with them personally. Be clear that you don't like what they are doing, not that you don't like them.
  • Accept their feelings. For example, tell them it's OK to feel angry but it's not OK to vent that anger by shouting at people.
  • Help them to explore their feelings. Try to understand their point of view - children have very strong ideas about is fair and not fair. Maybe you could think of how you might feel in that situation if you were a child.
  • Talk to them about other people's feelings. For example, your child has taken something. Ask them how they would feel if someone took something from them.
  • Remind them that you love them! Your child needs to know that you love them no matter what, and that you want them to be happy again.

Top tips to prevent more difficult behaviour

Read time: 2 minutes

There are a few things you can do each day to guide your child's behaviour.

  • Lead by example. Stay calm in tricky times and make clear rules and routines. Most of all, stick to them!
  • Issue warnings. Remind your child what will happen if their behaviour is challenging. And follow through with consequences for broken rules. Afterwards, speak to your child about what has happened. This way they'll understand why the behaviour was unwanted, unhelpful or unkind.
  • Offer praise. Praise your child for good behaviour. Especially if you think their tricky behaviour is a cry for attention.
  • Offer rewards for consistent good behaviour. Sometimes your child just needs a extra little motivation! Don't use sweets as a reward. Try rewards like a trip to a favourite park at the end of the week or playing a favourite game together.
  • Don't blame and shame your child, even if it is tempting when you're angry. Blaming and shaming your child can make things worse. It could increase aggression and cause them anxiety.
  • Avoid triggers. Try to avoid things that you have noticed can cause challenging behaviour. And remember, children find it harder to control their emotions when tired and hungry. Just like some adults!

Be kind to yourself

Parenting is a tough job, so don't forget to be kind to yourself! Challenging behaviour often leaves parents feeling rubbish and tired. If you are feeling helpless and unsure of the best approach to take, don't worry. There are many helpful websites and support services. Try to stay positive, and if you feel you need a helping hand, reach out. Remember to look after yourself!

Information from external websites

Action for children have a helpful section on how your child's challenging behaviour might affect you. They also offer top tips on how to respond to challenging behaviour on how to manage challenging behaviour and on how to get your child to do as you ask

Barnardo's Family Space share useful ideas for understanding and responding to behaviour in 4-8 year olds and also for routines and behaviour for 8-12 year olds

Childline has a page for children on how to control anger. But you could find some top tips to help your child too.

Family Lives has a number of useful articles, including how to deal with challenging behaviour and violence in schools. They also have an interesting section on stealing and lying and one on arguing with your child.

NSPCC has an informative page on how to talk about difficult topics like your child's behaviour.

Safe Space Health UK is a website for young people aged 11 - 14 in Surrey. It offers helpful information about emotional health, lifestyle choices, relationships, keeping safe, growing up and being okay with being different.

Young Minds have a useful parent guide on supporting your child with anger and another on supporting your child's challenging behaviour.

Struggling and need to talk?

For you

Action for Children offer 1:1 chat with a parenting coach (Mon - Fri). If they are closed you can leave a message and a parenting coach will get back to you within 3 working days.

Family Lives have a free, confidential helpline, offering emotional support, information, advice and guidance on any aspect of parenting and family life. Call the Family Lives helpline on 0808 800 2222 (Monday to Friday from 9am to 9pm and on weekends from 10am to 3pm).

NSPCC has a free, confidential helpline for parents looking for advice. Call 0808 800 5000 (Monday to Friday 8am – 10pm or 9am – 6pm at the weekends).

The Surrey Children and Family Health Advice Line is available from 8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday (excluding Bank Holidays). They can provide support on all aspects of child health, development and parenting for families with children from birth to 19 years old. Call the Surrey-wide 0-19 Advice Line on 01883 340 922

Young Minds has a free parents helpline. For detailed advice, emotional support and signposting about your child call 0808 802 5544 (9:30am to 4pm, Monday to Friday)

For your child

Childline have a free and confidential helpline for children. You could encourage your child to call 0800 1111 if they need to speak to someone - open 7 days a week from 7.30am - 3.30am. Childline also have a 1-2-1 counsellor chat for children who don't want to speak on the phone.

If your child is 11 or older you might want to tell them about the Child and Family Health Surrey text service called ChatHealth. It's a confidential school nurse messaging service for young people aged 11-19. Young people can contact their school nurse in confidence by text. The Chat Health text number is: 07507 329 951 (Mon - Fri 9am - 5pm).

All of the issues discussed are confidential unless a child's safety, or that of others, is at risk. The school nurses will always encourage young people to discuss issues with their parents or guardians.

Useful videos on how to deal with difficult behaviour

Family Lives shares this helpful video on dealing with difficult behaviour.

View on YouTube

EHCAP shares a fantastic video that uses the hand model to help you understand what is happening in the brain when we lose control of our emotions - as useful for understanding your own emotional responses as it is for understanding your child's!

Family Lives also have a video focusing on aggressive behaviour. They also have a helpful video on children behaving badly and one on children who are out of control. You might want to watch their video on thinking about how you feel when you don't like your child's behaviour. And their video on hormone hijack (9 - 14 years)

Family lives also share 6 top tips on keeping your cool!

The Families Under Pressure video collection offers a great series of short top tips videos on managing behaviour and help with negative emotions. Perfect for when your family leave you feeling frazzled!

Helpful tools and apps

Action for Children has a quick guide to spotting if your child has low self-esteem

Care for the Family present a series of interesting podcasts on parenting through the primary years.

Childline offers a calm zone where your child can access loads of resources to help when they feel overwhelmed. They also have a toolbox to help take their mind of things and manage their emotions.

Kooth is a free online counselling and emotional well-being platform for children and young people aged 11 - 18. Accessible through mobile, tablet and desktop 365 days a year on Monday to Friday from 12pm–10pm and Saturday and Sunday from 6pm until 10pm.
Your teen can sign up here

You might want to suggest your teen tries the MeeTwo App. it is free, and allows peer to peer support for 11-25 year olds in a forum monitored by trained adults. If your 11 year old posts a question, only other 11 year olds will see the post and be able to respond. Adults monitor questions and answers and hand the question to a counsellor if they feel the child needs more than peer support.

Download Meetwo from Google Play

Download MeeTwo from App Store

The NSPCC has a great guide on positive parenting.

Reading Well suggests a book recommended by health experts for your child on feeling angry.

Surrey's Family Learning and Adult Learning teams have developed a family wellbeing resource, with lots of tips on looking after yourself and your family during these challenging times.

Online parenting guides

Surrey residents get free access to an online guide that include top tips from childcare, education and NHS health experts

How to register

Registration is quick and easy. Go to the OurPlace website and use the access code 'ACORN' to get your free guide.

Access to the guide is unlimited with no expiry date, so you can return as and when you need and want to. Why not watch the Child and Family Health video to find out more.

Community support, courses and local help

Choose the area you live in for local services. Please note that due to coronavirus (Covid-19) very few community services are currently running.

BETA: We would really appreciate your feedback to help us improve and grow the service. We're listening!

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Date published: 22 Apr 2021