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Understanding Challenging Behaviors

Montclair State University
Pace University
Father with angry daughterAlmost every family has experienced a time when their child behaves in ways that seem very different from her usual behavior. There are many types of challenging behavior that may seem confusing, inappropriate or even frightening. Some children may act out in violent ways, like biting, kicking, or hitting themselves or others with objects. Understanding why this behavior occurs and addressing it in a positive way can help prevent future occurrences.
  1. All behavior is a form of communication.
    Everybody communicates through behavior. An infant may cry when she is hungry or wet, just like an adult may yawn when he is bored at work. Adults and children are communicating something through their behavior during every moment in every day, even if they are not aware of it. A child's problematic or inappropriate behavior is a sign that he is upset and that something is not right.
  2. There is always a reason for problem behavior.
    Children sometimes have trouble communicating, because they may not know the words to describe how they are feeling or what to do in a difficult situation. At these times, children may act out their feelings or needs. Thus children engage in challenging behavior for a reason. The purpose may be getting someone's attention, stopping an activity they don’t like, or gaining sensory pleasure — but there is always a reason behind the behavior.
  3. There can be many reasons behind one specific behavior.
    Children with challenging behavior are sending adults the message that something is not right or that their needs are not being met. There could be many reasons for a single behavior, such as being hungry, scared, hurt, tired, bored, wet, sad or angry. Some children have a hard time knowing how to tell adults they are angry, so they act out in ways that get them into trouble. Other children may engage in behavior that seems destructive, because they enjoy the physical sensation, for example punching things or pulling threads from clothing. Sometimes children feel unsafe or out of control, so they take inappropriate action over the things they do control, like being able to kick or hurt someone. A child who has tried several times to communicate to adults about what he needs, but whose needs remain unmet, will often use problem behavior as a way of sending a very loud message.
  4. Adults can learn to understand and interpret children's challenging behavior.
    Since children often use their behavior to tell us what they need, adults can help the child by figuring out the meaning behind the child's behavior. All children, but especially those who display challenging behavior, need the consistency of a reliable and loving adult who will provide support and guidance, especially during difficult times. Just as it is important to find meaning in children's behavior, it is equally important for adults to be aware of the meaning in their own behavior. Children learn a lot through the messages that adults send everyday.*
  5. Children's challenging behavior can be reduced with support, not punishment.
    Once adults understand what children are communicating through their behavior, they can respond better. When children feel respected and have their needs met, there is no longer a reason to use challenging behavior to communicate. Yelling at or punishing a child for a behavior may stop the behavior for the moment, but it does not give the child support or provide alternate ways to act in difficult situations. When adults use punishment, they are sending the message that anger is a good way to solve problems. When adults help children find positive ways to communicate their needs to others, children learn important social and problem-solving skills that will help them throughout their life.**
* For more information on sending positive messages through behavior, read the PBS Parents article on Everyday Ways to Teach Children About Respect.
**For more ideas on teaching children to deal with difficult emotions, read Mister Rogers' article on Mad Feelings.
To better understand what a child may be communicating through challenging behavior, it is important for adults to play detective and gather information. Think about when, where and with whom the challenging behavior occurs. Notice any patterns that occur. Think carefully about your child's day at school, home and other places you tend to see challenging behavior. See if you can find any patterns to your child's behavior by asking:
  • Is my child avoiding something, some place, or someone?
  • Does my child like the way this behavior (for example hand flapping or spinning) feels?
  • Is my child uncomfortable, hungry, tired, or not feeling well?
  • Is my child having a reaction to medication or food?
  • Is my child angry, sad, anxious, or scared?
  • Is my child confused, bored, or frustrated?
  • Does my child want to get away from something or someone?
  • Does my child want something?
  • Does my child need more time or help to finish what she started?
Many adults find it helpful to take note of what happens directly before and directly after the challenging behavior occurs. For example: Does your child get easily frustrated, even when she's working on something she likes to do, like playing a game or playing with the family pet? If so, maybe she's not understanding the instructions or the steps that you have provided. Or maybe the expectations are not clear (Gently petting the family dog, Alex, is ok, but tightly hugging her is not.). Are you paying attention to your child only after her challenging behavior occurs? If so, maybe a few minutes of "together time" before your child begins the activity or event could prevent future challenging behavior. Start thinking about whether the circumstances before and after the challenging behavior support the child in a positive way.
Real Life Story: Learn how one mother came to understand her child's behavior.

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