The Challenge With Challenging Behaviours
He just won’t listen!
She needs to calm down.
They won’t even try to do what I’m asking!!
For all the joy of sunshine park plays, sloppy kisses and those magic moments when your child lights up after you walk into the room, it’s fair to say that parenthood is laced with a good deal of challenging moments, too. Any parent who’s ever come up against a tantruming toddler, an emotional school-starter or a moody pre-teen will tell you, it can be tough at times.
Big feelings and even bigger behaviours (think hitting, pushing, sibling fights, defiance and the odd naughty word thrown about in the heat of the moment) are all part of the parenting ride, and something every family will experience in some form – but that doesn’t make them easy to know how to manage. In the moment, when you’re feeling frustrated, tired or even highly emotional yourself, it’s easy to assume that the challenging behaviours prove that your child doesn’t want to do what you’re asking. That they are being difficult, or stubborn because they simply don’t want to comply. Much of our social conditioning tells us that this is the case… that children can choose to be ‘well-behaved’ if they want to. This messaging is at the core of most incentive-based reward programs. Sometimes these things work, because the behaviour is wilful, and the child is capable of change.
But what about when they don’t?
Society will typically point the finger at the parents – clearly, they aren’t consistent enough, or they are letting the child ‘get away with too much’, if only they were firmer! The truth though, is that most often the parents are loving, dedicated caregivers doing their very best, yet constantly finding themselves at the end of their rope.
For the child, it’s not a case of won’t, it’s because they can’t.
The latest research to come out of neuroscience and psychology supports the fact that some children simply lack the skills of self-regulation required to manage big emotions and corresponding behaviours. When a child is in a heightened state, that is, when their body’s sympathetic nervous system is triggered into fight, flight or freeze (as is the case when challenging behaviours present), it’s impossible for them to think clearly, be rational or make well-thought-out choices. The part of their brain responsible for those things goes offline.
So, what to do?
Children struggling with challenging behaviours need the empathy and understanding of a loving caregiver to support them by coregulating in these challenging moments. Essentially, coregulation means that, by being there as a calm, supportive guiding energy for our children while they are struggling (not always an easy thing!), they will calm, and eventually learn the skills of regulation themselves. With this regulation ability comes the skill to manage their responses, their own emotional reactions and internal state…at which point, those challenging behaviours will likely just disappear.
The most important thing to remember, though?
This is a practice – one that may take some time to master, for both you and them. So go gently with yourself, call in whatever support you need and always remember to model self-compassion and care – it’s one of the greatest gifts you can give your little ones.
1. Economics (Soc.Sci)
2. Psychological Science (Hons)
The Brave Space