Understanding all the reasons children act in challenging ways

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When we first lock eyes on our newborn babies, we can’t imagine them ever growing up and testing us. Maybe it’s the loved-up post-birth hormones, but it’s hard to picture your bub one day throwing the world’s most epic tantrum over the fact that you cut his toast in squares, not triangles. 

The fact of the matter is that all children will act in challenging ways. Our precious, innocent babies grow up, child behaviour changes, and they will test boundaries. 

As a parent in the depths of a trying chapter, you might be wondering how to handle challenging children, what challenging behaviours are in children, and the reasons why children behave differently. We spoke to Kiindred’s Clinical Psychologist and the Director of MindMovers Psychology Jaimie Bloch about how best to navigate challenging behaviour in our kids.   

Challenging behaviour in children

“At the clinic, we often use the analogy of an iceberg to help parents understand their child’s behaviour. Children do not have the awareness to understand their emotions or the tools to communicate with words, so they often use their behaviour,” Jaimie explains. 

“In the iceberg analogy, we draw an iceberg and show a parent how the child’s behaviour is the tip of the iceberg and what we see on the surface. Behaviour is triggered by feelings that stem from the deeply rooted needs of the child, which lie under the surface of the water.”

“When we feel disconnected from others as adults, we experience negative emotions and thoughts. This can impact our outlook on the world and our perception of our own abilities. Children are more sensitive than adults and crave connection, even when they aren’t able to articulate and verbalise this.”

Jaimie points out that children are constantly seeking connection from those around them in order to feel safe, loved, and secure. “Children can’t distinguish between positive (kisses, hugs, positive play) and negative (shouting, hitting, time-out) means of connection. This is because of how our brains are wired, the same excitatory reward system releases dopamine no matter what type of interaction we have. The more connected our children feel through positive ways, they will not feel the innate need to engage in unhelpful behaviours to seek our attention and connection,” she says. 

How do you handle a challenging child?

“Remember: before placing a demand on your child, be mindful that switching from a rewarding activity such as watching TV, playing a game, or being on their electronics, to the demand to do something such as clean their room, sit for dinner, or do homework that is not rewarding — can feel hard,” Jaimie says. 

“Instead, try to find a way to make your child feel loved and connected before you place the demand. Love and connection help support us and will help support a more connected and joyful home.”

Jamie also suggests taking a deeper look at the bigger picture. “Understand the why. All behaviour is communication. Ask yourself why your child is engaging in the power struggle. Is it for power? Attention? Connection?”

As for troubleshooting the behaviour, you don’t need to do it immediately. 

“You don’t need to discipline at the moment; take a pause. When we try to discipline or set boundaries at the height of emotions, we will always end up escalating the situation. Instead, use some emotional coaching with your child by acknowledging, validating, and connecting to your child’s big emotions. Then tell your child you can see they are struggling today and it’s better that everyone has a break to manage their big feelings and come back later that day or the next day to discuss what’s going on,” Jaimie suggests. 

Another practical strategy that Jaimie recommends is working out the problem together. 

“Problem-solve for next time together. Tell your child: ‘Let’s write down a list of ways we can work on our communication, so you feel you’ve got more independence.’ You set the pace and the boundaries around how they can get their needs met in more helpful ways,” she reveals. 

What are 5 challenging behaviours?

While every family will have a different interpretation of what’s deemed difficult behaviour, some common challenging behaviours include: 

  1. Fussiness (i.e. won’t eat certain foods or wear specific clothes)
  2. Hurting others (e.g. biting, pinching)
  3. Tantrums
  4. Excessive anger when things don’t go their way
  5. Withdrawn behaviours such as anxiety, shyness, hand flapping, and social isolation

As Jaimie stresses, knowing the why behind our children’s behaviour is always a great place to start. Remember it’s always a good idea to talk openly to your child about their feelings and let them know it’s OK if they’re finding it hard or struggling. Coming from a place of love and empathy is key to understanding all the reasons children act in challenging ways.

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