Young people’s behaviour changes as they grow at different stages of their development. Sometimes a young person’s behaviour can become incredibly challenging, unmanageable and gets in the way of normal daily activities. This can cause undue stress and difficult feelings for both parent and child.
When behaviour causes concern, it can be helpful to take time and carefully observe the presentations of the behaviour. For example, keeping a diary of the triggers/situations, frequency, the intensity, people and or things that make the behaviour better or worse. This can help to determine normal behaviour from one that might not be normal.
This is behaviour that society expects to see and in line with the child’s age. For example, a young person or teenager who gets on well with family, schoolwork and has little or no difficulties with school attendance. A child who is polite, helps with chores, keeps healthy and active. Sometimes this accompanied by common feelings of sadness, joy, anger, boredom, fear, frustration which do not get in the way of normal daily life.
This behaviour is persistent, difficult to manage for both parent/carer and the young person and has significant impact on family life, school life, relationships with friends and general wellbeing. Some of the challenging behaviours I have come across when supporting young people include angry outbursts accompanied by shouting, swearing, avoidance, verbal abuse and constant arguments. Including shoving, hitting, kicking, smashing, or damaging things at home as well as in school. Taking high risks and ignoring good judgement, truanting, trying drugs, online bullying, alcohol, pornography, and underage sex etc.
How to understand difficult and concerning behaviour
Challenging behaviour can be signs of underlying mental health difficulties-see the behaviour iceberg.
Beneath the difficult behaviours as outlined above one might find sadness, anxiety, low self-esteem, distress, rejection, loneliness, grief, unworthiness, failure, embarrassment, tiredness, school phobia, low mood, disappointment etc.
Where challenging behaviour is unusual and persistently cause concern, it can be helpful to have an open and honest conversation about the difficult behaviour.
How to examine the difficult behaviour with a young person (11-16 years old )
• In a relaxed and non-judgemental manner- start a conversation whilst doing activities that engages the young person and takes away the focus from them like cooking, playing a game, car ride and walking.
• Focus on the behaviour not the child or young person, explain why the behaviour is not okay. For example, you might say that feeling angry is normal, damaging things and hitting is harmful.
• Show empathy, listen attentively, and show that you get their perspective. Let them know that they are loved that their safety and happiness matter.
Work together to come up with some strategies to help overcome the difficult behaviour. During the planning, let the child/young person lead. Agree on what works and does not work, look at barriers to achieving set goals to overcoming the difficult behaviour, agree on ground rules, including get out clauses when things get too much to handle etc.
• Give lots of positive praise, be specific too. For example, well done for letting the teacher know that you needed support instead of hitting your friend. Or try saying something like- you did well for listening without interrupting.
• Give them opportunities to do activities that help them relax enough to talk about difficult feelings. Some of the activities that young people have shared with me include arts and craft, sports, cooking, reading, painting, walking, fishing, gardening, listening to music and gaming. This can provide opportunities for both parent and young person to understand how to manage difficult behaviour.
• Stay calm and endeavour to model the behaviours which is expected from the young person.
Sometimes, challenging behaviour can be a sign of neurodevelopmental difficulties requiring additional support. During these times it is advisable to communicate your concerns with your child’s school (SENDCo, class teacher/head teacher). The school can also provide support where your child needs professional support to determine the difficulty which could include ASD, ADHD or Dyslexia. For example, assistance can be sought from an educational psychologist, school counsellor, advisory teaching service or school family support worker.
It is also advisable to call the child’s GP who can facilitate referrals for support with specialists like educational psychologist and community paediatrician.
The most important thing to remember is that ‘there is no such things as a perfect parent’, Sue Atkins). Sometimes strategies work, sometimes they do not. Sometimes the best thing to do is to be kind to yourself (self-love/care), and to wait. Sometimes the difficulty sorts itself out as the young person develops.
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