Have you been experiencing challenging behaviours from your child, which are becoming more difficult for you and your family to cope with?

The following useful tools are designed to support your understanding of these behaviours and provide you with some tips.

We will consider: 

  • Your expectations, feelings and emotions around your child’s behaviour.
  • Your child’s levels of understanding and ability to self-regulate (control feelings and emotions).
  • Your child’s behaviour triggers and responses
  • Practical tips
  • Links to further support

What is it you would like to happen when your child displays unwanted behaviour, and why?

To answer this you might like to think about the Pause for Thought system, which we will include throughout this article.

First pause for thought

Cast your mind back to a recent occasion when you felt that your child was displaying unwanted or challenging behaviour. You may find it useful to write down some key points.  Such as how were you feeling, what was happening in the lead up to the unwanted behaviour, where were you, who else was about?

When our children display unwanted or challenging behaviour it stirs up many emotions and feelings. You are not alone in this. These are some of the feeling or thoughts that you may have had:

Graph showing feelings of new parents

You may need to think about what development age/stage your child is at, with a real focus on their emotional and communication and language development.

Society can place unrealistic expectations on how young children should behave. It is important to remember that your child will have a unique emotional response to different situations as you would as an adult. It is important to always consider the age and stage of your child’s development, which may be different to their actual age.  

Take a look at ‘What to Expect, When?’ by 4 Children, with a focus on ‘Personal, Social and Emotional and Communication and Language Development’. This section looks at behaviour and emotions.

Behaviour is the physical response to how a situation is making your child feel. There are lots of new or different scenarios that your child may experience that will cause a challenging response. Your child is not developmentally able to communicate emotions, and your child cannot fully control their feelings and emotions until they are between 5 and 7 years old. As a result they may share their emotions with you through behaviour that can sometimes appear aggressive, subdued or otherwise out of character.

Second pause for thought

I would like you now to consider answering what could be some challenging questions for you, but if you can be honest when answering them it could help when coming up with strategies to support your child with their behaviour:

  •  What is in place currently for your child to have a routine?
  •  Is there a consistent approach to managing the challenging behaviour, not only from the main care giver but from the wider family too?
  • Think about the scenario when your child demonstrates the unwanted or challenging behaviour, consider, where you are, who is about, how long does it last, what form does it take, is there something that started it, how do you react?
  • What strategies do you use?  Do they work? Are these consistent every time?
  • Do you talk to your child about it afterwards?
  • What do you think your child is trying to express?

Difficult behaviours

Let us now explore why your child may display behaviours that are unwanted or difficult for you as a parent to manage.

Before your child can self-regulate (control their feelings and emotions), there are some basic needs that must be met:

  • Personal, Social and emotional development

    • Children are impulsive at this age and don't understand consequences
    • Lack of consistency from caregivers

  • Physical development

    • Children have limited concentration if they are tired
    • Children may be hungry/have an unbalanced diet

  • Communication and Language

    Children between 2 and 3 years of age have limited words to express themselves

It could be helpful to think about whether you are supporting your child to be able to overcome these barriers, e.g. by making sure they get enough sleep at night, or reading to them regularly to develop their language skills. Over time, you may see an improvement in their behaviour if you make sure their development needs are being met.

Practical tips

 Some helpful practical tips: 

  • Unless your child is doing something dangerous, or could accidentally hurt themselves, count to 10 before doing anything at all
  • Try not to get drawn into an argument about exactly what started it – your child may be beyond reasoning with in the moment
  • Don’t ask more of your child than they can manage
  • Avoid saying things just to hurt them back – especially threats that you may leave home. You may not mean them, but your child won't know that
  • Don’t worry that your child will grow up to be a monster.  The temper tantrums of a two and three year old will start to tail off – but only slowly.  It may take two or three years.
  • Try to remember that even though their behaviours may be unwanted, your child is learning important lessons about themselves - both of you are practicing for when they’re a teenager!

Douglas, 2001

For some more useful information please see the NSPCC Positive Parents page.

Third pause for thought

Look back at the first pause for thought. Think about what you would like to be able to do if this situation happened again, and how you might do this?

Further support

  • Your local Children and Family Centre, you will find information about these by going onto your local County Council website
  • Your GP or Health Visitor
  • YoungMinds Parents’ Information Service - ​​​​​​You can text the YoungMinds Crisis Messenger, for free 24/7 support across the UK if you are experiencing a mental health crisis. If you need urgent help, text YM to 85258All texts are answered by trained volunteers, with support from experienced clinical supervisors. Texts are free from EE, O2, Vodafone, 3, Virgin Mobile, BT Mobile, GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile and Telecom Plus.
  •  If your child has disabilities or additional needs, even if they don’t have a diagnosis, you can call Contact on 0808 808 3555

Five to Thrive - Respond

Young children learn from everything around them. From birth, every experience builds a connection in their brain, as a parent you influence this connection.

Your child needs you to model the behaviour that is appropriate, give them the words to describe new experiences and give them guidance as to what they can and cannot do. Staying calm can help you be in control of any situation and also helps them to calm down when their emotions overwhelm them. This is something we all need from time to time!


  • Have clear and consistent boundaries for behaviour.
    This will mean that your child knows what is expected of them and can predict what is going to happen. This encourages feelings of safety, and your child will feel confident to explore within their boundaries.
  • Stay calm when your child pushes or breaks boundaries.
    Remember you are modelling behaviour. Your calm mood will also help them to calm down.
  • If your child is very distressed and overwhelmed, allow them time to calm down first, before addressing boundaries. They may need you to be close to them, possibly cuddling or holding them, or they may want to be alone.