Challenging behaviour

Just like us, children can behave differently at different times. Children can feel frustrated, sad, cross and upset. Lots of things can affect behaviour but children are more likely to behave in ways that are harder to manage when they are tired, ill or stressed. Although this is can be hard to deal with it is a normal and healthy part of their life.

Many children go through phases of testing boundaries as they grow up. Where you may have had tantrums with younger children, older children may sometimes shout, storm out or lash out.

Challenging behaviour can include:

  • aggression
  • self-harm
  • destructiveness
  • disruptiveness

Triple P Online is available free in Hillingdon and is available to support parents understand and support their  children's emotions. Please see this leaflet for more information and speak to your Keyworker, School, College or Youth worker can make a referral for you.

  • Life changes – any change in a child's life can be difficult for them. This could be the birth of a new baby, moving house, a change of childminder, starting playgroup or something much smaller.
  • You're having a difficult time – children are quick to notice if you're feeling upset or there are problems in the family. They may behave badly when you feel least able to cope. If you're having problems do not blame yourself, but do not blame your child either if they react with difficult behaviour.
  • How you've handled difficult behaviour before – sometimes your child may react in a particular way because of how you've handled a problem in the past. For example, if you've given your child sweets to keep them quiet at the shops, they may expect sweets every time you go there.
  • Needing attention – your child might see a tantrum as a way of getting attention, even if it's bad attention. They may wake up at night because they want a cuddle or some company. Try to give them more attention when they're behaving well and less when they're being difficult.

  • Reward good behaviour with positive attention. If it is safe to do so, ignore any difficult or challenging behaviour. This will encourage your child to repeat the good behaviour.
  • Communicate with your child and tell them what you like about their behaviour. For example, “I liked it when you helped set the table”.
  • Do the same and be specific about what you don’t like about their behaviour. For example “It really upset me when you slammed your door”.
  • Be consistent and set clear boundaries. This help’s your child know where limits are and encourages them feeling safe and secure
  • Children like to play and be engaged in different activities. Listen to your child, talk to your child, play with your child. Show them you enjoy spending time with them as this will make them happy. 

Most children will seek any kind of attention, positive or negative. If it is safe to do so try to ignore any difficult or challenging behaviour.

Do what feels right

What you do has to be right for your child, yourself and the family. If you do something you do not believe in or that you do not feel is right, it probably will not work. Children notice when you do not mean what you're saying.

Do not give up

Once you've decided to do something, continue to do it. Solutions take time to work. Get support from your partner, a friend, another parent or your health visitor. It's good to have someone to talk to about what you're doing.

Be consistent

Children need consistency. If you react to your child's behaviour in one way one day and a different way the next, it's confusing for them. It's also important that everyone close to your child deals with their behaviour in the same way. 

Do not change your plan because they cry, whinge or protest as this can lead to more tantrums or whingeing in the future.

Try not to overreact

This can be difficult. When your child does something annoying time after time, your anger and frustration can build up.

It's impossible not to show your irritation sometimes, but try to stay calm. Move on to other things you can both enjoy or feel good about as soon as possible.

Find other ways to cope with your frustration, like talking to other parents.


Distract your child’s attention if you notice difficult behaviour starting or continuing, refocus attention elsewhere such as a toy or pointing out something interesting

Talk to your child

Children do not have to be able to talk to understand. It can help if they understand why you want them to do something. For example, explain why you want them to hold your hand while crossing the road.

Once your child can talk, encourage them to explain why they're angry or upset. This will help them feel less frustrated.

Be positive about the good things

When a child's behaviour is difficult, the things they do well can be overlooked. Tell your child when you're pleased about something they've done. You can let your child know when you're pleased by giving them attention, a hug or a smile. 

Offer rewards

You can help your child by rewarding them for good behaviour. For example, praise them or spend time doing a favourite activity.

Do not give your child a reward before they've done what they were asked to do. That's a bribe, not a reward.

Time out strategies

If bad behaviour persists, remove your child from the situation and put them somewhere safe but boring for 1 minute of each year of their life; for example 6 minutes for a 6 year old. This will give both of you time to calm down.

Avoid smacking

Smacking may stop a child doing what they're doing at that moment, but it does not have a lasting positive effect.

Children learn by example so, if you hit your child, you're telling them that hitting is OK. Children who are treated aggressively by their parents are more likely to be aggressive themselves. It's better to set a good example instead.

Adults often set boundaries to protect children and keep them away from danger or harm. It is important that you explain why boundaries are there so your child learns and develops. 

Some tips that can help include:

  • Work out where boundaries need to be as your child grows and understands. Too many are impossible to maintain and difficult for children to understand. 
  • As children grow older most will test boundaries you have set. Boundaries may also need to change as they get older to reflect new behaviours and experiences.
  • When your child sticks to the boundaries you have set or listens and responds to your direction give them lots of praise and positive attention.
  • Resistance is normal. One way to stop this happening is to let them know why something is important. Boundaries help a child know what is acceptable and what is not.
  • Boundaries work far better if they are made and agreed by everyone. This can help children understand the boundaries in place for their safety
  • Allow your child time to practice and be patient. All children slip up now and again

Most younger children will occasionally bite, hit or push another child. Here are ways to teach your child that this behaviour is unacceptable:

Don’t hit bite or kick back

This could make your child think it’s acceptable to do this. Instead, make it clear that what they’re doing hurts and you won’t allow it.

Put your child in another room

If you’re at home, try this for a short period. Check they’re safe before you leave them.

Talk to them

Children often go through phases of being upset or insecure and express their feelings by being aggressive. Finding out what’s worrying them is the first step to being able to help.

Show them you love them, but not their behaviour

Children may be behaving badly because they need more attention. Show them you love them by praising good behaviour and giving them plenty of praise and attention when they’re not behaving badly.

Help them let their feelings out in another way

Find a big space, such as a park, and encourage your child to run and shout. Letting your child know that you recognise their feelings will make it easier for them to express themselves without hurting anyone else.

You could try saying things like: “I know you’re feeling angry about … “. As well as showing you recognise their frustration, it will help them be able to name their own feelings and think about them.

Sexual exploration and play is a natural part of childhood sexual development, and helps children develop physically and emotionally.

Read the NSPCC's information on sexual behaviour in children

Read the NSPCC's information on the normal behaviours typical of each development stage

Sometimes children show sexual behaviour that's inappropriate or unexpected for their age. This can be because of:

  • curiosity
  • anxiety
  • a traumatic experience
  • a learning disability
  • a mental health problem

If a child acts inappropriately in public, try to distract them with another activity. This can be a useful way to defuse the situation.
If you think a child's behaviour is related to an illness, speak to the healthcare professionals involved in their care and ask for advice on how to manage their behaviour.

They can tell you about local or national organisations that could help.

If you're concerned about the safety or welfare of a child, contact the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000.

Do not feel you have to cope alone. If you're struggling with your child's behaviour: