A mother and daughter looking at each other

Challenging behaviour

Parenting is an incredibly rewarding and challenging experience.

At times, it can feel like a real roller coaster of emotions – particularly if your child or young person is behaving in ways that feel difficult to manage or understand.

If your child’s behaviour is challenging at the moment, it might feel exhausting. But things can change. With support, both of you can experience a more positive family life. On this page, we’ve got lots of ideas and strategies to help you deal with difficult moments.

What is challenging behaviour?

Most children and young people will behave in challenging ways at some point. Feeling upset, angry, stressed or disappointed is a normal part of life. Because we develop our ability to manage our emotions as we grow up, children and young people do sometimes act out when they’re going through big feelings. In response to their emotions, they may display a range of behaviours. It’s normal for younger children to hit or 'have a tantrum’ sometimes. And it’s normal for teenagers to shout, lash out or storm out sometimes. Most children and teenagers will also push boundaries as they test their independence.

But sometimes, challenging behaviour can become more frequent and difficult to deal with. It may start to have an impact on someone’s day-to-day quality of life, on relationships and learning at school, and on other family members.

Examples of challenging behaviour include:

  • having lots of angry outbursts or ‘tantrums’
  • regularly shouting, swearing, hitting, biting or kicking 
  • kicking, hitting, smashing or damaging things in the home
  • regularly refusing boundaries and routines, including not wanting to respond to reasonable requests
  • being impulsive and taking physical risks 
  • blaming others for their behaviour
  • bullying or being unkind towards others
  • persistently getting into trouble at school
  • refusing to engage in conversations about what’s going on

Why do children and young people behave in challenging ways?

An iceberg in the middle of the sea with blue sky and clouds around the iceberg. The iceberg has words that show different emotions that comes with anger.

An iceberg submerged in water, with the text 'When we seem angry or aggressive, there are often other feelings hidden under the surface'. The words Angry and Aggressive are displayed on the section of the iceberg above the water, and the words Worried, Hurt, Scared, Lonely, Stressed, Overwhelmed, Ashamed, Ignored, Sad are displayed on the iceberg below the water. 

The way your child behaves is a communication about how they’re feeling.

When your child is acting out, it can be helpful to think about the image of an iceberg. We only see the top of an iceberg because most of it is underwater. Similarly, when your child is behaving in challenging ways, there will be feelings going on under the surface that you cannot see. Your child may not be aware of these feelings and may need your help to talk about them.

Underneath their behaviour, a child or young person may be feeling angry, tired, stressed, anxious, confused, hurt, jealous, bored or something else. Whatever's going on, try to remember that the behaviour you see on the surface is not the whole story.

Talking to your child about their behaviour

If your child is acting out, starting a conversation about what’s going on can often feel like the hardest bit. Your child might not want to talk, or they might find it hard to recognise that there is a problem.

Starting a conversation while doing an activity together is a good strategy to try. This can help your child to relax by making it feel like less of a ‘big chat’. Depending on your child’s age, you could go for a walk, cook or bake together, or do something creative like colouring. Or you could start a conversation while travelling somewhere together.

If your child cannot talk at the moment, you could start a conversation by text or write them a letter instead.

Whether you’re talking in-person or in another way, our tips below can help you to have a positive conversation with your child.

  • Use simple phrases

    Try to use simple phrases such as:

    • "I notice there is a lot of shouting happening."
    • "I think something might be upsetting you."
    • "I feel worried you’re not happy."
    • "I need you to know you can talk to me about what’s going on."
  • Make it clear that the behaviour is the problem, not them or their feelings

    Be specific about the behaviour you have noticed, without using labels or negative words such as ‘naughty’, ‘bad behaviour’ or ‘horrible’.

    Tell your child that it’s normal to feel angry, frustrated or upset, but it’s not okay to express it in this way.

  • Explain why the behaviour is not okay

    It's important for your child to understand why their behaviour is not okay. For example, you might say that while it’s normal to feel angry, it hurts other people when they hit, or it hurts your feelings when they shout at you.

  • Be curious, empathetic and non-judgmental

    Try to understand things from their perspective. Let them know that it’s okay to feel however they feel, whether that’s sad, angry, worried or something else.

  • Reassure them

    Reassure them that you love them and you want to help them feel happier and enjoy things again.

  • Read our guide to talking to your child

    You can find more tips and advice for starting conversations in our guide to talking to your child about mental health.

Helping your child to manage their behaviour

Having some behaviour management strategies in mind can help you to feel more confident. Below are some things you can try to help your child manage their behaviour. Have a go at some different strategies until you find what works for you and your child. Be patient if new strategies do not seem to work straightaway. It often does take a bit of time for change to happen, and for your child to get used to things.

It's important to set clear boundaries and stick to them as much as you can. You could do this by creating a family agreement together. This can cover things like screen-time, family meals and times for getting up and going to bed.

Remembering to explain why can help – so rather than just shouting ‘sit down’ at the table, I try to let them know that I’d like them to sit down so we can enjoy eating and that we can go and play when we’ve finished.

Give a warning before giving the consequence. This allows your child an opportunity to change their behaviour. After the consequence has been given and your child has calmed down, chat together about what happened. Then ‘wipe the slate clean’ and find time for a positive interaction with them soon after.

Notice and encourage them when they show the kinds of positive behaviour you have asked for. Be specific about why you are praising them. For example, you might say, ‘thank you for letting me know you were feeling angry without hitting your brother’. Or, ‘thank you for putting your phone away when I asked you to, now we can eat together’.

Challenging behaviour is exhausting and demoralising. In our family it often leads to everyone feeling less positive and only picking out the negative behaviours, which is so hard not to do. When we notice that we have all gotten stuck in a negative rut, we make an effort to pick up on and name some positives, however small, and this helps us move through a difficult time.

Depending on their age, some of these strategies might help your child to calm down:

  • drawing or painting
  • doing something active like running or their favourite sport
  • listening to music
  • having some time alone
  • reading a book
  • writing
  • cooking or baking
  • making something out of playdough or Lego

Having a list of coping strategies will help them to build up a bank of tools they can use when they’re struggling.

The more we can express ourselves and feel understood, the less likely we are to act out. When you show interest in your child’s feelings, it helps them to understand their own emotions and find words to describe them. With a younger child, it can be helpful to wonder out loud about what’s going on. For example, you might say, ‘I wonder if you felt really disappointed when we could not go to the park this morning because you were looking forward to it’.

Reading stories together that talk about feelings has helped my child get used to the words – giving them a way to talk about positive and difficult things.

Help them think about the signs that let them know they might be about to ‘blow their top’. These might be ‘seeing red’, their heart beating fast, feeling hot, clenching their fists, breathing heavily or feeling restless. They can use these signs to alert them to the fact that they need to choose a strategy that helps them, or ask you for help.

It’s completely normal to feel frustrated, angry, overwhelmed or hurt when your child is behaving in challenging ways. But try not to react or argue back, as this will only escalate the situation.

If you feel yourself running out of patience and it is safe to do so, it’s okay to walk away for a few minutes to calm down. This is actually a positive strategy your child can learn from you when they see you doing it. After a particular incident, make sure both of you have some space before you try to talk about what has happened.

Try to set aside some time when you can be really present and give your child your full attention. Find things you can enjoy together such as going to the park, playing a board game, cooking something or watching a favourite film. This can help to build a more positive atmosphere and relationship between you.

Share your concerns with their teacher, form tutor, pastoral lead., head of year or SENCO. Ask them what they have noticed. How does your child behave at school? Is it similar or different to the way they behave at home? If your child’s teacher has found something that works, it may be helpful to try it at home to provide consistency.

Finding professional support for your child

A counsellor or therapist can support your child to understand and manage their feelings and behaviour. Counsellors working with younger children will usually do this through play and arts activities.

Have a look at our guide to counselling and therapy to find out how you can access services in your area.

Guide to counselling and therapy

Be open with the school about the challenges you are experiencing and ask them for advice. Lots of primary and secondary schools provide extra support like mentoring, pastoral check-ins, learning support, peer buddying, and clubs and activities.

Whether they are at primary or secondary school, you might have noticed that something at school is triggering your child’s behaviour. This could be their relationships with their peers, their schoolwork or learning, or the school environment. If this is the case, work with the school to address this. You can find information and advice to help you do this in our guide to school anxiety.

Guide to school anxiety

If you are worried that your child is behaving in challenging ways because they are struggling with their mental health, it’s a good idea to speak to a GP. If you have a younger child, you can speak to the GP yourself to get information and advice. If you have a teenager, you can encourage them to make an appointment or ask them to go to an appointment with you.

The GP can discuss what’s happening and make suggestions for what might help. They can also make a referral to the NHS mental health service for children and young people, called CAMHS.

You can find out more about how GPs can help in our guide to getting support from the GP.

Getting support from the GP

Sometimes, children and young people behave in challenging ways when they have an additional need, neurodiverse condition, learning disability or developmental difficulty that has not been recognised. This can include dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism, ADHD, or difficulties hearing or speaking. In this situation, they may be acting out because their needs are not understood at home or school.

If you think your child might have an additional need, speak to your GP, or to your child’s teacher, pastoral lead or SENCO. They can make a referral for an assessment. It’s helpful to make a log of the behaviour you have noticed so that you can provide evidence when communicating with professionals.

If your child is diagnosed with an additional need, you can ask the professionals supporting them about parenting strategies that will best suit them.

You can find out more about the support available in our guide to getting mental health support.

Getting support from mental health services

Looking after yourself

Supporting a child who is behaving in challenging ways can be an exhausting task. If things are tough at the moment, don’t be hard on yourself or your abilities as a parent. While it’s normal to feel upset when your child is acting out, often it is not about you. Like us, children and young people take things out on those they feel closest to and safest with. So try not to take it personally. Keep doing the things that help you re-charge and ask for support when you need it.

You might also find it helpful to reach out to other parents. It can be very reassuring to hear what they are struggling with and how they handle difficult situations. They can also be someone who gets it when you need to talk.

You can connect with other parents by:

  • reaching out to family and friends
  • accessing peer and group parent support through Parenting Mental Health
  • joining Facebook groups or other online groups
  • setting up your own parent support group using our guide
  • My favourite phrase when things are tough is: this too shall pass.
  • Be kind to yourself. Keep reminding yourself that you are doing your best, even if you wish you might have handled something differently that day.

Useful helplines and websites

While we take care to ensure that the organisations we signpost to provide high quality information and advice, we cannot take responsibility for any specific pieces of advice they may offer. We encourage parents and carers to always explore the website of a linked service or organisation to understand who they are and what support they offer before engaging with them.

  • YoungMinds Parents Helpline

    We support parents and carers who are concerned about their child or young person's mental health. Our Parents Helpline provides detailed advice and information, emotional support and signposting.

    You can speak to us over the phone or chat to us online.

    You can speak to us over webchat between 9.30am and 4pm from Monday-Friday. When we’re closed, you can still leave us a message in the chat. We’ll reply to you by email in 3-5 working days.

    Opening times:
    9.30am-4pm, Monday-Friday
  • Family Line

    Provides information and support around family issues, as well as longer-term help through Befrienders and Counsellors.

    Opening times:
    9am - 9pm, Monday - Friday
  • Family Lives

    Emotional support, information, advice and guidance on any aspect of parenting and family life.

    Opening times:
    9am - 9pm, Monday to Friday; 10am - 3pm at weekends
  • Children 1st Parentline

    Support for families living in Scotland. You can call their helpline for parenting support and advice on any issue, including challenging behaviour, divorce and separation, stress, or money worries. You can also find lots of information on their website.

    You can also speak to someone over web chat.

    Opening times:
    Monday - Friday, 9am - 9pm; Saturday - Sunday, 9am - 12 noon
  • Parenting NI

    The leading charity for parenting support in Northern Ireland. They provide help and advice through their Support Line, and parent programmes and workshops across Northern Ireland.

    You can also access support through their webchat service.

    Opening times:
    9.30am-3.30pm, Monday-Thursday; 9.30am-12.30pm on Fridays
  • Gingerbread

    Support for single parents in England and Wales including advice and information on child support, benefits, tax credits and your child’s contact with their other parent. 

    Opening times:
    Mon 10am-6pm, Tues, Thurs & Fri 10am-4pm, Wed: 10am-1pm and 5pm-7pm
  • One Parent Families Scotland

    Provides support, information and advice for single parents in Scotland.

    Online chat service available.

    Opening times:
    9.30am - 4pm, Monday - Friday
  • Contact

    Provides support, information and advice for families with children with disabilities or other conditions including ADHD. Also runs family workshops and activities.

    Free online chat service available. 

    Opening times:
    9:30am - 5pm, Monday - Friday
Patient Information Forum Trusted Information Creator (PIF TICK) logo

This page was reviewed in July 2023.

It was created with parents and carers with lived experience of supporting their child or young person with challenging behaviour.

We will next review the page in 2026.

YoungMinds is a proud member of PIF TICK – the UK's quality mark for trusted health information.

Whether you love the page or think something is missing, we appreciate your feedback. It all helps us to support more young people with their mental health.

Please be aware that this form isn’t a mental health support service. If your child is in crisis right now and you want to talk to someone urgently, find out who to contact on our urgent help page.

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