How to Deal with Challenging Behaviors

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I specialize in anxiety disorders and learning differences in my private practice. I see a wide age range of children and adolescents, and usually by the time they get to me they’ve been struggling for a while. More often than not, it’s their behavior (not their learning struggles or anxious tendencies) that earns them a seat on my couch. “I’ve tried everything and nothing works,” is a phrase I hear over and over again.

Challenging behavior in children can be exceptionally difficult to handle. When it happens at school, a team of people gets together to problem-solve. When it happens at home, parents often feel lost in a sea of negativity with minimal skills to navigate the issues.

Something else that I see a lot of: Challenging behaviors quickly lead to negative parent-child interactions. Family relationships shift from unconditional love and support to parent versus child. It almost always results in hurt feelings and heartache on both sides.

It can be difficult to separate behavior from feelings when emotions run high, but the truth is that behavior is a form of communication.

Your kids aren’t on a mission to upset the family balance. They are on a mission to make their feelings known.

How can parents reframe their thoughts about negatively charged behaviors and learn to help their kids through the difficult moments? Start with these steps:

Calm yourself first.

When kids act up, parents jump into action. Parents want the negative behavior to stop before it escalates, so they react before they process. In instances when behavior is fairly minor (poor peer interactions, sibling squabbles, etc.), quick action can help diffuse the problem. When emotions are big, however, this can backfire.

When parents meet negative behavior with negative reactions, the intensity of the emotions increases. Anger triggers more anger and one temper tantrum turns into two.

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I always encourage parents to find calming strategies that work and use those first. I’m a fan of deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, but you have to find what works for you.

When parents calm their own emotions first, they are better able to help their kids access strategies to calm down and move forward.

Assess for triggers.

When children engage in challenging behavior, they send the message that something isn’t right. It might be something that built up over time, or it might be something in the heat of the moment.

Consider the possible triggers. Many kids act out when they are exhausted, hungry, sick (or getting sick), overwhelmed, over-stimulated, angry, sad or scared. It’s difficult to label feelings and talk about emotions. Sometimes it feels satisfying to act out verbally and/or physically.

You know your child’s baseline. Before you jump to consequences, take the time to consider the feelings beneath the behavior.



Parents are conditioned to end negative behaviors as quickly as possible. The moment a problem arises parents put out the fire. The thing is, everyone needs to vent. Kids just vent differently than adults.

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Yes, negative behaviors need to be addressed. But in the heat of the moment, empathy helps. Listen and empathize first – you might actually get to the root of the problem if you take the time to listen before you correct the issue.

Teach positive communication skills.

The best time to help kids learn new skills is when they are calm. While it might be tempting to address negative behaviors in the moment, it’s best to teach alternatives after the fact.

Teach your child to use “I statements” to communicate feelings and practice ways to vent negative emotions in a healthy way.

When parents learn to view behavior as communication, some of the negativity attached to those behaviors decreases. When parents learn to separate their own emotional reactions from the behaviors of their children, they are better able to help their children work through those challenging moments.

What do you think?

How to Deal with Challenging Behaviors

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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