How to manage challenging behaviours


Jessie enjoyed going to school and was a healthy and happy girl. But one day, everything changed when she started displaying challenging behaviours. She was constantly complaining about physical pain (stomachache and headache). She had difficulty waking up in the morning, and she refused to get out of the car when she was dropped off at school. Despite trying out all possible methods (rewards, punishment, bribery), her parents had no clue what to do with their 9-year-old. She just refused to go to school.

Where are these challenging behaviours coming from?

Understanding behaviour

Behaviour refers to how we conduct ourselves – our actions, reactions and functioning in response to everyday environments and situations. What contributes to our behaviour? Family culture, beliefs, moral values, habits, personality, emotions, society, mindset, genes, gender … the list goes on.

Often, behaviour is a reflection of who we are, what we believe in and how we feel. The construction of our behaviours starts from birth. As we grow up, we are exposed to different life experiences which enable us to learn and form behaviours that fit our needs at the time.

Managing your child’s challenging behaviours

Challenging behaviour simply means behaviour that interferes with a child’s daily life. For example, challenging behaviours that impact the health and quality of life, and those that increase risks of physical injuries, dietary deficiencies, social isolation, and difficulties in school transition.

Parents often feel helpless and despair over their children’s challenging behaviours. It can be extremely stressful for the parents and child. However, a change in mindset might help manage children’s challenging behaviours in a more positive way.

As mentioned earlier, behaviour is a reflection of who we are, what we think and how we feel. A challenging behaviour is a sign that the person is not okay and can be seen as a cry for help.

Take Jessie’s case as an example. Why would she show challenging behaviours out of the blue? If she were happy, she would eagerly go to school. Even if something upset her at school, she should be able to get over it in a short period of time, unless it is something she feels helpless about and requires help from adults.

How to manage your child’s challenging behaviour?

* Observation

When your child acts differently from normal, do not jump the gun and conclude that your child is misbehaving or trying to seek attention. Take some time to observe her behavioural patterns. Are they showing a consistent challenging behaviour? It can be as simple as not being able to sleep well at night, or lashing out easily. If a challenging behaviour persists and affects your child’s daily life, it is a warning sign that she is having a difficult time, and is asking for help.

* Help them to open up

You want to know what’s going on and what’s causing the challenging behaviour. Asking a direct question wouldn’t help much because your child may not be able to explain what she is going through or feeling. Instead, have conversations with your child. Talk to her about her day, her friends, school, lunch … anything that will get her talking about her day. Talk to her as if you are talking to an old friend and would like to know more about her life. When your child is more comfortable, she will be able to open up and talk about things that have been bothering her.

* Offer support

Offer support first, then find a solution. As parents, you may get upset by what your child is experiencing. But displaying negative reactions is negative reinforcement which might stop her from opening up to you in the future.

Attend to your child’s feelings first, not yours. Understand how she feels about it and reassure her that you are there for her. Then, discuss with your child how she would like you to help solve the problem. You can offer a few solutions, and see how comfortable she is. By doing this, you are showing respect to your child’s feelings and concerns, and at the same time, building her ability to evaluate, make a decision and problem-solve.

Jessie’s situation persisted for a month or two. Her parents had no choice but to seek professional help. Jessie was perfectly normal except for refusing to go to school. Would she benefit from professional help? Stay tuned for the next article.

Sping Lim is a practising health psychologist based in Malaysia. Throughout her years of practice, she has come to the realisation that most social and emotional problems can be prevented if individuals are provided with the appropriate guidelines from young. Check out her work at Lilo and Friends (