What is challenging behaviour?

teddy bear in a cot
Disclaimer – we are discussing behaviours which are not medical in nature. 

One of the questions parents sometimes  ask us is: “What do you mean by challenging behaviour?” 

There are a few reasons why they might be asking this. They might want to find out if their child is entitled to services and support, or if our definition ‘matches’ their child’s behaviour.

The answer is: Challenging behaviour means different things to different people, and it’s very broad.

Developmental phase or challenging behaviour?

In general, every child goes through stages and phases when new behaviour pops up. Sometimes the behaviour is unexpected or undesired, like biting others or screaming.

We always look first at if the behaviour is developmentally appropriate. 

These behaviours either go away naturally, or occasionally, they get worse and adults don’t know what to do. 

When it becomes frustrating; you get really run down by it; it’s upsetting you, the child, or other family members – then it might be classed as ‘challenging’ behaviour. What is challenging to you, might not be a challenge to another parent.

The important thing is that there is always something that can be done about it. The priority is that you are committed to help your child, this means you might need to make some changes in your approach. At the start this might be uncomfortable and you might feel out of your comfort zone, but this will pass as you see progress and things improve.

What do we mean by behaviour?

Let’s start with looking at behaviour in general. Behaviour by definition is “the way in which one acts”, the way in which an animal or person behaves in response to a particular situation or stimulus. Basically, behaviour is everything that a person does. 

‘Challenging’ by definition means “testing your ability, demanding or provocative, inviting people to argue”. As you can see this is already very general. 

We look at ‘challenging behaviour’ from a slightly different perspective. The behaviour which is often upsetting to others is not necessarily challenging to the child. In fact it might be the only thing they do to get by and get their needs met. 

Behaviour is a form of communication

Maybe you’ve heard the saying that every behaviour is a form of communication. And that’s what we believe. 

The child is trying to communicate something. You might just need an extra pair of eyes to figure out what that is. One day, it might be quite easy to figure out what the child needs, the next, it might not be so clear. Sometimes, it might take a good few weeks to find the cause of a particular behaviour.

We usually use so called A-B-C chart. A-B-C chart helps us to figure out the trigger, keep a track of particular behaviour and also looks at how the others reacted to the behaviour. Only then we can analyse why it happens and what strategies to put in place. 

Everyone’s boundaries are different

Because some behaviour can be mild and does not hurt anyone, you can learn to ignore it if it’s only troubling you a little bit.

To one parent, for example, swearing wouldn’t matter too much. For another, it might really test the boundaries and be really challenging. 

To the child it might be the only way to, get some 1-1 time, for example, or they might have learned that other children will laugh. 

For some, homework time might be a complete struggle. If a child in one family keeps leaving the table and throwing books, the parents might be at the end of their tether, whilst others are less bothered by this. 

For the child, this behaviour might be the only way to express that these tasks are too hard, and he/she can’t do it. 

Our priorities are different too 

Some families might find lack of skills very challenging. We might have a family whose child is not toilet trained at the age of 4 and teaching this skill is their priority. 

The neighbour’s child might be 10 still in nappies but it’s not challenging because, either they have more to worry about or they have become used to it and accepted it. 

For different children this could be due to different reasons – sensory, lack of skills, avoidance to go to the toilet, or they might just enjoy having 1-1.

This might not have a critical impact on the child’s life now, but we would like to tackle this behaviour as it may have a negative impact on the child’s future life. 

Other behaviours are classed as severe and should be targeted as soon as possible when people and property are in danger at any time.

What keeps you up at night? 

As you can see the definition of ‘challenging behaviour’ is broad, vague, and depends on a parent’s boundaries and priorities. What may be challenging to one parent, may not be a big issue for another. And what may be viewed as rebellion in a child, may actually be an attempt to communicate. 

We understand that everyone’s needs are different and we work alongside parents and children to get to the root of challenging behaviours. The important thing is to take a step back and try to understand what your child is attempting to tell you. 

Get in touch 

If you have any further questions about functions of behaviour, behavioural therapy, or you want to know more about getting support , please do not hesitate to get in touch!


With thanks to Betty for edits, questions and suggestions 🙂

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