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Managing Challenging Behaviour in Children

Managing Challenging Behaviour

All parents, teachers, carers, and childcare professionals have to deal with difficult behaviour from time to time. Knowing how to react to this sort of behaviour, why a child may be acting out of character, and how you can approach it is a great starting point for dealing with children who may be feeling confusing emotions and need support from an adult.

What is challenging behaviour? 

Just like adults, children can feel emotional, stressed, pressured, and angry at the world. Whilst many adults will have found coping methods for when they feel this way, children are still growing, learning, and developing. They will need help from supportive adults to teach them how to manage their emotions and to behave in an appropriate way when they are feeling negative. 

Many children and young adults will go through a phase when they test the boundaries of what is and what isn’t acceptable behaviour. By pushing boundaries like this, they can learn what are safe and permissible ways to act towards other people. 

Additionally, children can often act out more when they are feeling tired, hungry, ill, or stressed. It’s also completely normal for toddlers and small children to throw tantrums and for older children and teenagers to storm out, slam doors, and shout occasionally. Many things can affect behaviour including hormones, difficulty at school, relationships, and just general growing up. Tantrums and behaviours like this would be considered normal and not necessarily ‘challenging’.

Types of challenging behaviour

When we talk specifically about challenging behaviour, we are referring to patterns of behaviour that are persistent and that make it difficult for you as a parent/carer and for other professionals such as teachers to manage. This can have a detrimental effect on the child but also the entire support system around the child. 

This may present itself in behaviours such as:

  • Angry outbursts and tantrums 
  • Shouting, swearing, and being argumentative
  • Aggressive behaviour such as fighting, biting, and kicking
  • Breaking and damaging things
  • Stealing
  • Bullying others and being rude
  • Repeatedly getting into trouble at school
  • Running away attempts 


These types of behaviour usually cause a lot of trouble and are very easy to notice. However, not all challenging behaviours are easy to identify. They may present in other ways such as: 

  • Becoming withdrawn
  • Sulking, moodiness, and refusing to talk 
  • Self-harm or other forms of destructive behaviour 
  • Meeting strangers and putting themselves in at-risk situations 
  • Breakdown in communication 
  • Lying and being deceitful


Whilst some children may naturally become rebellious, testing the waters as they grow up. If any of the above behaviours are consistent and begin to cause a problem with general family life or the child’s education, they may be considered challenging. 

What are the causes of challenging behaviour? 

Each child is different and it can be hard to pinpoint the cause of behaviour like this. For some children it can be a phase they grow out of, but for others, proper support and guidance may be needed from professionals. 

It’s important to remember that children’s behaviour is often a result of their surroundings, family life, and general upbringing. Any past negative trauma or experiences may be the root cause of their behaviour. Acting out can be a way of getting attention and expressing their feelings when they do not know of another way to validate their emotions. 

Causes can range from:

  • Feeling unwell (physically or mentally) 
  • Hormonal changes and puberty
  • Frustration with being misunderstood and/or not listened to
  • Feeling stressed about a change in routine
  • Boredom or lack of stimulation
  • Lack of confidence
  • Feeling inadequate
  • Fear, stress, and anxiety


Challenging behaviour and learning disability 

Challenging behaviour is not a learning disability. However, children who have learning disabilities may present with challenging behaviour. This is an important distinction to make as any child can present with difficult behaviour and it is not, in itself, a disability. 

Children with learning disabilities may have difficulty communicating and this can be extremely frustrating. They still experience the same emotions, upset, and anger as anyone else but can have trouble expressing this. Challenging behaviour can be a sign that something is wrong such as pain, discomfort, or unhappiness. It can be their way of expressing to you that they need more help and support.  

Challenging behaviour and foster care

Children and young people who are living in foster homes have been removed from their birth family by local authorities because they were not receiving adequate care, love, support and appropriate boundaries. Many of these children will have experienced neglect, abuse, abandonment, and other negative experiences that can lead them to feel traumatised. 

These difficult experiences during early life can result in strong feelings of loss and trauma and can lead children to develop attachment issues. In fact, childhood trauma can have a negative impact on brain development. A young impressionable child will have adapted to survive in an unpredictable and often threatening environment. This has a long term effect on how they cope with stressful situations and how they build relationships with others, leading to trust issues, difficulty making friends, and general low self-esteem. 

Additionally, children learn from their environment by observing, listening, and mimicking behaviour. If early interactions with their caregivers were based on violence, aggression, and misunderstanding, then this is the model of behaviour that they have based their own relationships on. Not having a good role model in life means they have no acceptable form of adulthood to idealise when growing up. This, combined with traumatic experiences, are some of the reasons why foster children may exhibit negative behaviour. 

How to monitor challenging behaviour

For parents and carers, monitoring challenging behaviour can be useful to report back to professionals who are also working with your child such as their social worker, teacher, or doctor. 

For carers, record keeping is extremely important as it allows social workers to monitor the child’s progress and ensure they’re receiving the right type of care and support to help them overcome their trauma. 

For carers this can be a useful in identifying patterns of behaviour and possible triggers too. Try to make a note of the time, what caused the incident, and what happened. You can also note what worked to help calm the child so you can use that method in the future. 

Talking to children about behaviour

Healthy communication should be at the centre of any caregiver and child relationship. Encouraging open and honest communication allows you to get an understanding of how the child is feeling and for you to provide them with the nurturing environment that they need. Often challenging behaviour is just the tip of the iceberg and by having a chat, you can identify the deeper emotions and issues that are troubling them under the surface. 

That being said, opening up a conversation with a child can be difficult, especially for those with teenagers. We recommend trying to follow the below steps: 

  1. Find a time to talk when you are both comfortable. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. You could chat while out on a walk, driving, cooking or baking, or watching TV. Try and find an activity where you are both comfortable and relaxed. 
  2. Start by mentioning the behaviour and letting them know that it’s okay to feel sad, angry, and upset. Tell them that these are completely normal emotions that everyone feels, even you! It’s important to emphasise that they aren’t the problem, but rather the behaviour is. 
  3. Explain to them why the behaviour is not acceptable in an age-friendly way. Emphasise how it can hurt other people and make them feel sad and upset too. 
  4. Ensure that you give them the chance to say their piece and focus on listening and trying to respond in an empathetic way. Creating a judgement-free space is the best way to ensure things don’t escalate and become another argument! 


Long term behavioural strategies

By carrying out the below, you can create a nurturing environment that encourages openness and rewards positive behaviour. 

Create clear rules and stick to a routine

As a family, agree to certain rules and routines that you will all stick to. Doing this as a family levels the playing field and ensures that everyone is treated equally and fairly. Some rules you might want to implement are limiting screen time, when family mealtimes are, and what responsibilities for chores everyone has. When children can see that everyone is treated the same, it discourages feelings of isolation and the idea that they are being forced to stick to more rules than others. 

Behave how you want the child to behave

As discussed before, children will imitate those around them. If you’re regularly shouting and arguing, then this is something they will deem as normal and likely to do themselves. We know that nobody is perfect, but trying to exhibit model behaviour is a really good way of setting a good example for the child. It’s okay to be upset, angry, or any other emotion too! Letting your child know these feelings are normal and showing them how you deal with them can also be really useful.

Always praise good behaviour

Praise is a powerful thing! Praising children boosts their confidence and self-worth and ultimately makes them feel happy, loved, and noticed. When a child has achieved something, no matter how small, always praise them. Try to give specific praise by pointing out a detail about what they did that was good. This can reinforce good patterns of behaviour and a good attitude. 

Help a foster child to flourish

The behavioural management strategies mentioned above form a great foundation for providing nurturing care for a foster child who has had to leave their birth family. Of course, not all foster children will present challenging behaviour, but knowing how to deal with it can be a really important part of a foster carer’s role. With the love, warmth, care, and support of a foster parent, children and young people have brighter hopes for the future and can look forward to a happier, more successful life! 

You don’t need to have had your own children or any experience of childcare to be a foster parent as full training and support is provided to carers. At Fusion Fostering, we have a comprehensive training programme to give all carers the knowledge and skills they need to make amazing carers. We also provide 24/7 access to a professional member of the Fusion social care team, so you can be sure you’re never alone. 

If fostering is something you would like to know more about, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at Fusion Fostering. We are an independent fostering agency with a commitment to providing high quality care, meeting the needs of each and every child we look after. To find out more, please call 03301 239 355 to speak to a member of our team. 

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Fusion Fostering Limited, incorporated and registered in England and Wales with company number 07819299 whose registered office is at Old Mill, Maltravers House, Petters Way, Yeovil, Somerset, BA20 1SH.

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