Overcoming Challenging Behaviors

Posted by: Marni McNiff Tags: There is no tags | Categories: Uncategorized


By Carol Averbeck, Specialist
All parents find their child’s behavior challenging or confusing from time to time. For those of us with children who happen to have special health needs, this can be especially true. Communication differences, medications and their side effects, sensory differences or developmental delays can make understanding and managing challenging behaviors even more difficult.

Additionally, whether right or wrong, a parent can feel that their child’s behavior is a reflection on them as a parent. When our child is acting negatively, we may question our parenting skills or worry that our friends and family are judging us and our kids.  This adds even more stress to an already stressful situation.

My son just entered high school and for us, managing behavior has been a journey. We tend to go in cycles; things go along smoothly for a while and then, boom, a new challenging behavior comes along. Fortunately for us, we have a good team of friends, family members, and therapists/doctors to help us figure things out. Eventually, my son and I, with help from his team, are able to figure out a plan for dealing with the behavior.
The challenging behaviors we have dealt with have changed through the years. We have the best success conquering those behaviors when we remember the following basics about behavior.

Behavior Follows the A-B-C Rule (Antecedent -> Behavior -> Consequence)
Behavior does not exist in a vacuum. All behavior has a triggering event or events (in behavior-speak, an antecedent), and all behavior has a consequence or an outcome. An important part of understanding a challenging behavior is figuring out what occurs before the behavior and what happens as the result of the behavior. This part often feels a bit like playing detective. Understanding what happens just before and just after the behavior essentially gives you the key ingredients for how to “fix” the behavior; a successful plan will include a way to either change what happens just before the behavior occurs (the triggering event) or to change what happens after the behavior (the outcome).

Behavior, Even Negative Behavior, Serves a Purpose
All behavior exists for a reason; even when it might not seem rational to the observer. Although difficult, it helps to look at a challenging behavior as filling a need for your child rather than viewing it as something your child is doing to be annoying or bad. When my son was younger and before he was able to communicate verbally, he began hitting at people when he wanted something. For him, hitting was a quick and easy way to get the attention of whomever he needed to talk to, and it served a purpose.

Don’t Take Away a Behavior Without Providing a Replacement Behavior
It’s easy to be focused on getting a challenging behavior to stop but that doesn’t solve the whole problem. As noted above, behavior serves a purpose – it does something for your child. In order to make long-lasting behavior change, your child needs to learn a new and acceptable replacement behavior. Getting my son to understand hitting was not OK did not fix his communication needs; he still needed to be able to do something instead of hitting when he wanted to communicate. We helped him to stop hitting by teaching him a few sign language words and making a book of pictures he could use to show us what he wanted.

Manage Behavior by Managing the Environment
While we can’t wave a magic wand and make a behavior stop, we can adjust some things in our child’s environment to limit the triggers and/or outcomes of the behavior.  As an example, if your child hits or yells when he or she is hungry, making sure they have a small snack between meals can do away with or minimize their trigger, hunger. If your child is used to having your undivided attention when they tantrum, walking away and/or ignoring the behavior can result in a quick end, limit the audience, and make sure that the outcome (an audience and attention) is not rewarding the behavior.

Predictable routines and structure can also help minimize challenging behaviors. Although a family calendar full of activities can make it tough, trying to stick to a routine as much as possible also helps to limit behavior problems.
Even when we know our child’s triggers, we can’t always avoid the situations that cause them. Your child’s trigger might be long waits in doctors’ offices but that doesn’t mean you can stop going to the doctor. Knowing that long waits are a behavior trigger can at least allow you to plan ahead to deal with the possible behavior problems that will occur and think of some ways to keep them entertained while waiting.

Catch Them Being Good and Celebrate It
Positive reinforcement is far more effective than punishment. That means that whenever you can, you should catch your child doing something good and reinforce them for it in the way that works best for them. My son loves praise but dislikes public attention, so for him, the most effective thing to do is to pull him aside and quietly tell him that I saw the great/kind/calm thing he just did and that I am proud. Calling his grandma or sending a text to his teacher to share the good news also work well for him, so we use both of those methods to reinforce his good behavior.

Consequences Are Also Important
Having clear rules for behavior and consistent consequences for negative behavior is very important. While reinforcement is powerful, behavior has consequences. Allowing your child to experience the consequences (when it is safe to do so) of their behavior is also important part of dealing with a challenging behavior. A teen who breaks the rules for technology use may well need to go without their phone for a period of time. A younger child who throws their toys while having a tantrum might need to help pick things up after they have calmed down.

Build a Team (and Use it Without Feeling Guilty)

When you are a parent, asking for help dealing with a problem behavior might not always be easy but it is important. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child and the same can be said of dealing with challenging behaviors. Do not be afraid to talk with your child’s teacher, therapists, doctor, or others team members about your child’s behavior and to get their input. My son’s teachers, speech and occupational therapists, and doctors have all provided helpful input and advice over the years. Connecting with other parents who are dealing with similar challenging behaviors can also help. If a face to face group is not possible for you, there are a number of very helpful parent groups on Facebook.

Take Time to Take Care of You – No, Really, Do It.
It’s easier said than done, I realize, but you can’t help your child with his or her behavior if you don’t take time out for yourself. Getting out with friends, exercising, or just grabbing a nap not only helps you manage stress but can also give you some much needed perspective on dealing with challenging behaviors.


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