March, 2018

Challenging Behaviour in Children

Challenging behaviour is described as ‘problem behaviour’, ‘difficult behaviour’ or ‘socially unacceptable behaviour’.

It can include many different things, depending on the age of the child.

  • They have trouble following instructions and commands.
  • They tend to be reckless.
  • They find it hard to notice, make sense of or communicate feelings and needs.
  • They find it hard to consider the need of others.
  • They have trouble managing their feelings of frustration.
  • They find it difficult to concentrate for long periods of time and/or attention span is limited.
  • They have meltdowns and temper tantrums and get upset, angry and distressed easily.
  • They find it difficult to make friends at school.
  • They find it hard to motivate themselves to do things they aren’t interested in.
  • They like routine and cannot deal with changes in routine.

Some of the main reasons why children develop behaviour problems are:

  1. The child wants more control over his/her surroundings. This gives them a feeling of being in control. Many kids feel they have little control and will therefore act out so that they can get what they want. Children are very often being told what to do by others, be it at home or at school they are following directions/instructions of their parents or teachers. Some of the kids do whatever they can to feel in control. Even if it means throwing temper tantrums, having meltdowns, breaking rules, refusing to follow your directions or even arguing with you.
  2. A child who has low self-esteem, and needs to gain acceptance may do unacceptable things to get attention. The child is trying to feel good about themselves and validate their worth. These kids may do things to make themselves feel worthy like picking on their little brother, doing something dangerous just to feel cool and keep saying something inappropriate no matter how many times you ask them to stop.
  3. A child may not be able to express themselves. Sometimes children cannot find the right words due to their limited vocabulary.
  4. The child has a need to move, burn energy, or stimulate themselves in some way shape or form. They find it very had to sit and relax or do something that requires a great deal of concentration. An example would be a child who is constantly running around the house and jumping on furniture no matter how many times you ask him/her to stop.
  5. If a child is being given responsibilities beyond his/her age or more than they can handle. For example, if you are asking your 3 year old to tidy his/her room and they refuse to do it. Or you take your 4 year old to the supermarket and expect them to stand in a queue quietly for any length of time or even asking a 7/8 year old to focus on homework for long stretches of time.

A child who has low self-esteem, and needs to gain acceptance may do unacceptable things to get attention

First, aim to build towards success gradually, and focus on trying to do what’s valuable, not on immediately reaching the level of performance you think a child of that age should reach. If you come across strong resistance, then leave it for few days, and when you return to the issue, lower your expectations. Seek to get the desired behaviour for a shorter period, ask for less of it. Working up to the desired behaviour gradually, in doable steps, is a process called shaping.

If we take an example that your child is behind in reading compared to rest of his class. His teacher wants you as the parent to do some extra reading with him/her at home every day for 15 minutes. Your child, who’s self-conscious about his reading, resists this “extra” work, perceiving it as a penalty. The resistance, on top of the reading problems, produces a situation that can make a parent frustrated and angry and in turn make the child anxious. A more sensible approach to this will be is to try something low-key, like, “We’re going to read to each other in turns of 2 minutes each. Once your child and you have got the habit in place, over a week or two you can escalate in easy stages up to 15 minutes of reading.

Your child’s resistance to learning to read may be either his genuine difficulty with reading so by your putting additional pressure on him you are increasing your stress levels. As your stress goes up, it’s very likely that your increased stress will translate into behaviour (such as harsh categorical statements) that will cause your child’s stress to go up when you try to get him to work on his reading. So, it is very crucial that you help your child with the reading without putting the pressure.  

If you find yourself saying, “No matter how hard I try and try, I can’t make my kid do A …” or “No matter how hard I try, I can’t make my kid understand B …” it’s usually is a clear sign that your expectations are too high and you need to re-address the way you are handling it.

When your child fails to meet a specific and clear request and it’s a one-time occasion, try to let it go if you can. But if the request is not met and it’s not a one-time event, then it’s time to begin shaping the desired behaviour. Start in small chunks and keep increasing until you reach the point you are happy to settle for: less behaviour, for less time, less often. For example, you could start by doing ten minutes of homework and slowing increasing the time, not making them sit doing homework for a full hour right away; putting their toys away, not cleaning their whole room. Then work up to the desired level. And, once you get close, remember that getting a behaviour to occur most of the time, as opposed to every single time, is probably good enough. Exceptions are usually not a problem; they’re normal.