What is your child’s challenging behaviour telling you?

Instead of categorising children’s behaviour, clinician Hannah Verass teaches us how to interpret a child’s actions as a form of communication. She asks us to separate the child from the behaviour and regard their behaviour as their method of expressing their needs.

It is common for adults to label a child’s challenging behaviour as ‘bad’ behaviour. Instead of categorising behaviour we can interpret a child’s actions as a form of communication. When we view behaviour through this lens it becomes easier to investigate what a child is needing.

When we can identify this need, it will help us to better respond and manage difficult situations.

Children often do not have the words to describe their needs and rely heavily on non-verbal communication, so instead will communicate through their behaviour. Challenging behaviour is a way a child may communicate a message about unmet needs in desperate and extreme ways.

When observing and interpreting behaviour, consider if the child is:

Avoidant/withdrawn or Flight Response

Defiant or Fight Response (coping with a perceived/misperceived threat)

Aggressive or Frightened

Acting out or Emotionally dysregulated

Attention seeking or Seeking attachment

Disengaged or Hypervigilant or Dissociative (not feeling safe yet)

Uncontrollable or Needing skills to self-regulate (co-regulation)

Manipulative or Seeking to meet unmet needs

Challenging behaviour can be described as a reaction to a child not having their needs met as well as a way of expressing their emotions. As behaviour is driven by thoughts and feelings, when responding to a child’s challenging behaviour we want to consider the associated triggers and emotions.

Ask yourself “What does this child need from me at this moment” “What emotion is this child feeling?” “What need is not being met?”.

When identifying needs, we want to consider needs such as safety, predictability, control, connection, stimulation and acceptance.

Let’s consider an example; a child may be exhibiting challenging behaviour which is displayed through aggression and violence. Instead of labelling the child as defiant, we want to explore what is underneath the behaviour. A trigger for this child could be the word no or being told what to do, emotions associated with this behaviour may be frustration, anger and anxiety, using behaviour as a way of defending themselves.

Through this behaviour a child may be expressing a need for control. The child may not feel like they have any control over their environment. This may not be something they know how to communicate through words and instead communicate their need to feel a sense of choice and control through their behaviour.

Providing more control while maintaining boundaries can be achieved through acknowledging and validating how a child is feeling, setting reasonable limits and providing acceptable choices or alternatives for the behaviour.

It is important to work towards meeting the child’s need through daily routines. Focussing on the need for control, adults can provide choice to children as much as possible when carrying out daily activities, this may be providing different options to a child, so decisions are made in collaboration where possible.

Another situation of challenging behaviour may involve a child constantly seeking out attention from their care giver in desperate and extreme ways. Here, their need for connection may not be satisfied. More one to one connecting time scheduled throughout the week can help build up this need and help to reduce challenging or persistent behaviours.

It is important to recognise that children who try to communicate their needs and thoughts but are unable to, can be deeply frustrated.

We must not forget that child is separate to their behaviour with behaviour being their instrument to express their needs. Adults play a powerful role in supporting children to interpret and express their needs in ways that are appropriate to the situation and environment. Modelling respectful and caring relationships and the healthy expression of emotions can assist children to gain these skills themselves.

Hannah Verass

Australian Childhood Trauma Group