As a parent, chances are you’ve been tested and frustrated by your child’s behaviour. It could be the tantrums of a two year old, the shouting and disregard of a 14 year old, or anything in between.

Pushing boundaries and trying the patience of parents is part of a child’s healthy and normal development. It’s your child’s way of practicing their independence. For most families, as difficult and frustrating as this is, these episodes do pass. 

What is challenging or distressed behaviour?

We often hear children’s behaviour described as being challenging, but many people who work with children prefer to think of this as a child signalling their distress.

Distressed behaviour is different from the normal everyday behaviour of children that happens to challenge their parents in any given moment.

It tends not to be a one-off. Distressed behaviour is a serious ongoing issue for parents and children. A child showing distressed behaviour demonstrates their distress through actions which are risky or harmful to themselves or others. 

Distressed behaviour can take many forms, including:

Distressed behaviour can have serious consequences for you and your child, including:

  • risks to themselves or others
  • breakdown of relationships
  • emotional and physical impacts
  • impacts on enjoying life – school, friends, experiences.

How distressed behaviour feels – for parents and children

As a parent you can recognise how your child’s behaviour makes you feel – angry, worried, upset. So how is it for them?

It can be difficult to think of how your child might be feeling. How scary must it be to feel so angry, to feel that you have no control over your actions, to not really know why you’re doing what you’re doing?

Living with a child with distressed behaviour can be overwhelming and exhausting. Taking a step back and asking you to see it from your child’s perspective might feel unfair at first. But if you can start to see your whole child and what they are experiencing – and not just the behaviour – it can be the first step towards changing things for the better.

As a parent it raises a whole host of feelings – anger, dislike, loss, worry, helplessness, heartbreak. Often you just can’t see a way out.

At Parentline, we can’t promise a magic wand, or an easy answer but we can try to help you get through this, one small step at a time.

What are the reasons for distressed behaviour?

It’s important to recognise that all behaviour is, in fact, communication. Challenging or distressed behaviour is a sign that something isn’t quite right for your child, or that they are finding life hard at this point in their life.

Some children may have experienced some trauma in their life, such as the death of someone close, parents separating, bullying or even school pressures. Sometimes the behaviour may be linked to other stresses such as changing schools or homes. Some children may have specific additional needs, disabilities or conditions – for example autism – which can make many situations difficult  for them to cope with.

Some parents might recognise when and why the behaviour started, but this doesn’t necessarily make it easier to deal with.

What might help?

You know your child best, even if you might not think it right now. Trust yourself to know what will work best for you and your child.

Here are some things you could try that other parents have told us have helped. You can also call or webchat with Parentline and we will listen. Talking to someone who can help you think things through can really help to reduce your stress and support you to make things better.

It’s hard to hear or accept that you and your child are stuck in a cycle of behaviour and reaction. Take a minute, think, what do you do when they become angry? Can you do something different?

It might take all the strength you have, and it certainly won’t be easy. Instead of shouting back, can you walk away? Instead of telling them to stop, can you ignore them?

  • Talk with your child about what’s going on, tell your child they seem really unhappy or sad, and that you’re worried about them. Notice them and explore what is at the root of their distress.
  • Try not to fly off the handle if you don’t like what you hear. Ask for time to think about their point of view.
  • Talk calmly with your child about what the boundaries and consequences of their behaviour are. Don’t make threats in a moment of high emotion.
  • Talking about how your child might be feeling doesn’t mean you allow their behaviour. All children need a consistent, safe and supportive environment, even if it’s not what they think they want.
  • Try to see your child’s behaviour as something to be understood rather than something to be fixed. Shift from the problem to the cause.
  • Instead of thinking ‘what’s wrong with you?’ start by thinking ‘what’s happened to you?’
  • Can you think of their behaviour as a sign of distress not anger? If you can, try not to take it personally – even though it feels so personal.
  • Is your child behaving this way elsewhere too, or only at home? If your child’s behaviour is distressed or challenging everywhere then others have a role in helping.
  • Working together to support your child can make things easier to deal with, for you and your child.
  • Body language, gestures and eye contact are all as important as words and can say so much to your child.
  • Little acts of kindness and gestures like playfully ruffling their hair as you walk past them lets them know you care.
  • Blowing a fanfare on an imaginary trumpet when they tell you about some positive feedback they got from a teacher shows that you recognise all forms of their behaviour.

If behaviour becomes violent

If children become violent towards others, it might be a sign of trauma. Violence towards others may be the only way your child can express their distress. You will need to make sure no one else is at risk of harm before you can help them. You may need help with this. This might include talking to others like school, your GP, social work or the police.

If it is safe for you to do so, you may want to explain to your child what you will do if they are violent towards yourself or others and why you are doing this.

No parent wants to phone the police about their own child. It is, without doubt, an incredibly difficult call to make. If you, your child or someone else is at immediate risk of violence then calling the police may be necessary to keep them safe from harm and begin to address the cause of the distress.