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Coping with challenging behaviours

Being a parent or carer is incredibly rewarding, but there’s no doubt that it can be stressful too, especially if your child’s behaviour is challenging. Here’s some information about different types of behaviour, and advice about how you can support your child.

Allowing your pre-schooler to develop good behavioural, emotional and social skills now will help them avoid difficulties with learning and development later. Ensuring that rewards, praise, rules and boundaries and appropriate consequences are in place will help your child to be ‘school ready’. School is a place where appropriate behaviour is expected.

It’s really important that all the adults who care for your child follow the same consistent approach so your child isn’t getting mixed messages.

Withdrawn behaviour – what does it look like?

Children who show this behaviour find it hard to join in socially with other children or to express their emotions.

You can support them by:

  • Not pressuring them to take part in an activity that will make them anxious
  • Thinking about the things they’re interested in, and using them as a starting point to encourage more interaction with others

Very confident behaviour – what does it look like?

Confident children are often the first to try new things and tend to take the lead in social situations. Underneath though, they may be worried about having to prove they’re good at everything and may avoid taking part in something if they don’t feel they’re going to get it right straightaway.

You can support them by:

  • Showing them that it’s fine to mess things up and have another go. Let them see you having to practice to get better at things

Shy behaviour – what does it look like?

Shy children are often quiet, and may ‘hide’ behind you in social situations. They’ll be very sensitive to the range of emotions people show and how others respond.

You can support them by:

  • Giving them the opportunity to watch an activity or practise a new routine first so they understand what will happen and how it might feel

Anxious behaviour – what does it look like?

Children showing anxious behaviour may be reluctant to join in with activities, and be quick to take offence or feel left out.

You can support them by:

  • Watching out for the times when they seem more or less anxious – look at their facial expressions, body language or any challenging behaviours
  • When you see them starting to get anxious, divert their attention by encouraging them to do other things they enjoy. But don’t completely avoid the situations that seem to make them anxious, or you’ll be reinforcing the message that there is something to worry about. Instead continue to reassure and support them

Very active behaviour – what does it look like?

Very active children tend to be very physical both indoors and outside, and find it hard to be still, especially when others are physically close.

You can support them by:

  • Thinking about the times of day which your child finds most challenging, and consider if you can give them more opportunities to be more physically active at those times
  • Allowing them to get outside – being outdoors reduces the levels of the stress hormone cortisol for all children
  • If little ones are inside for long periods without much space, they start to feel unsettled and you’ll likely see more squabbles and irritable behaviour

Controlling behaviour – what does it look like?

Children showing controlling behaviours are usually dominant in a group and will ‘take over’ if they feel another child isn’t doing an activity ‘correctly’.

You can support them by:

  • Spotting the times when they show more controlling behaviours, and the times when they seem more relaxed and at ease with others. Are there any patterns?
  • Taking time to talk through an activity with them before they get involved, and showing them that are other ways to ‘help’, such as telling, guessing and talking about, rather than just taking over straightaway

Aggressive behaviour – what does it look like?

You may see your child lashing out when things don’t go their way, getting easily frustrated and assuming that others are deliberately trying to upset them.

You can support them by:

  • Trying to identify the things that can be ‘triggers’ for their aggression, and seeing if you can reduce these
  • Thinking about what your child is trying to communicate through this behaviour. Are they feeling overwhelmed by their feelings? Unsure how to express themselves? Frustrated or helpless? Do they think a situation is unfair? Are they copying behaviour they have seen in others?

Victim behaviour – what does it look like?

Children who seem to be often on the receiving end of verbal or physical attacks from others are stuck in a ‘victim’ way of thinking, and need help to develop their resilience.

You can support them by:

  • Talking through with them some responses they could use (with help at first), such as saying ‘Go away!’ or ‘Stop!’ Help them to role play this with puppets
  • Thinking about how you can increase their self-confidence and be proud of their achievements
Remember, no-one is a perfect parent all of the time. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed by your child’s behaviour. Your Health Visitor will be happy to talk through further behaviour management strategies with you.

Useful links

NSPCC Positive Parenting – a guide with practical advice and tips that work well for children of all ages


Page last reviewed: 12-11-2017

Next review due: 12-11-2020