Understanding Challenging Behaviour

Understanding challenging behaviour


The aim of this article is to come to an understanding of what challenging behaviour is. It is hoped that you will reflect on your experience of life events and relationships that may have influenced your behaviours. It is important that we consider the experiences and relationships of the children/young people we care for and how these may influence the presenting behaviour which may be challenging for us. To assist the child/ young person through this phase we will look at how we may build up a more effective and responsive relationship.


Challenging behaviour seem to be two ‘buzz words’ used commonly today to describe the behaviour of young people where the behaviour causes some sort of difficulty for those around the young person. Very often when people discuss challenging behaviour we think of it as a condition to be cured from. It is often capitalised ie Challenging Behaviour, which adds emphasis the label we attach to children and young people. Today I want to de-capitalise these words and begin to understand what challenging behaviour really is. I want us to realise what influences the development of such behaviour and the purpose this behaviour serves. I would also like to look at how we influence behaviour that are more acceptable without looking to breaking the spirit of the young person.


If I was to ask you what challenging behaviour is what would your answer be?

What specific behaviours do you consider challenging?

There are times when certain behaviours can cause difficulty for one person but may not bother another. If you think about the habits that irritate you, I am sure there are some, you may begin to recognise that not everyone is affected in the same way you are. There may be something in your earlier experiences that triggers a response to that particular behaviour, sound or whatever it is, that stimulates a certain effect from you. You may have been taught from an early age that speaking with your mouth full is rude soy as an adult, you respond negatively to this action because you have internalised this rule. It has become part of what you see as wrong.

What do you show?


What behaviours can you see in yourself could others find challenging?

It is important to see that challenging behaviour is not a Youth problem. We all do things that others have issues with. As adults we tend to get off with it because the majority of people do not feel comfortable challenging a grown up about such behaviours. We live in what is known as an ‘adoscentric’ world where the rule of the adult takes priority. So, because of our adult status, our behaviour may go unchecked.


One thing we need to consider is what influences our behaviour?

There are many things that influence our behaviour, things from our early experiences; people; circumstances; events. The relationships we have had, and are in presently, hold much responsibility for the personality we have and the behaviours we show. We discussed in the Attachment training how the style of relationship affects the way we form relationships but also how we maintain these relationships. Depending on our Attachment style we act and respond to certain things and types of people. We may use behaviours that have been modelled for us and over the years we adopt these for ourselves. How often have you thought that is just like so and so? Significant people in our lives play an important role in the development of our behaviour and through exposure to their behaviour we internalise this behaviour without even thinking about it. Some things we do because it feels right. Other things we do because it has become part of who we are. How after have you found yourself excuse someone’s behaviour just because “that’s just the way they are”? This thinking acknowledges that people have a subconscious behaviour pattern that they do not appear to have control over. The difficulty arises when someone finds that behaviour or action challenging.

Another thing that may influence the development of challenging behaviour in us can be the circumstances of everyday life.


Can you think of a time when your behaviour changed due to changing circumstances?

You may find that when things are going smoothly your behaviour is relatively ‘normal’ or unchallenging. However; when something throws you ‘off your stride’ you may find it more difficult to maintain the positive behaviour model, or even your dignity at times. When you feel ill or ‘under the weather ‘this can really impact on your sense of well-being. Another person’s behaviour could also affect two you feel about yourself. This, in turn, can lead to less control over your emotional state. This is what is termed as ‘emotional regulation’ and is about how you manage your emotions at any given time. When you are not feeling at your best physically or psychologically you may find it more difficult to manage your behaviours. If you are having hormonal issues the ability to control specific emotions, often ones relating to temperament, are impacted upon. At these times there can be a real sense of being out of control and when you have been used to an element of control this in itself can cause even more anxiety.


What effect does this ‘loss of control’ have on you?

This sense of loss of control ties in with the issue of our behaviour being affected by events. Positive events in our lives tend to leave us feeling good and we seem to continue in a controlled manner. When a ‘crisis’ hits us, and we may feel that we are hit by it, we can begin to feel less secure. This feeling can result in the demonstration of behaviours that may be difficult for others.


Can you think of something that happened in your life that resulted in your behaviour becoming challenging?

Some of these behaviours we could put down to the character traits of parents or significant people in our lives. We may have developed these responses to crisis because we did not have anyone to turn to so through a trial and error process we find what works for us. Wherever these behaviours come from it is important to understand them.


I would like you to consider certain questions in relation to the challenging behaviour you displayed:

Who did it affect and how did it affect them?

How did they respond and how did that affect you?


Therefore, when you think about the behaviours you demonstrated, can you think whether or not the consequences of the behaviour had a satisfactory outcome for you?

The reason for looking at this is that much of our behaviour communicates something. A need or want becomes evident in our actions. There is a sense of purpose attached to the behaviour we are demonstrating and very often the repetition of the behaviour is the result of a satisfactory outcome for us. For example, I used to work with an individual who used to spit at people. When we looked at the situations this took place we discovered that the outcome of this behaviour tended to be that he was left alone for people did not wish to spend time with someone who would spit at them. The outcome proved that this behaviour was effective in keeping people at a distance. So he repeated this on a daily basis. There was a sense of purpose in the behaviour.


When you considered the consequences of the behaviour discussed in the last task I wonder if you were also able to identify what it was that you were trying to achieve through the behaviour?

When we begin to understand the purpose behind an action or behaviour we are able to understand that challenging behaviour more clearly. It gives us a sense of perspective when dealing with the behaviour and the individual demonstrating that behaviour.

You may have noticed that we have spent some time looking at our behaviours. As was mentioned earlier challenging behaviour is not a youth problem. There are behaviours displayed within society that are seen as acceptable in our thinking and others that are not. We are influenced in our thinking about what is acceptable or not by the fashion of behaviour. I use the word fashion deliberately for the normal patterns of acceptable behaviour are influenced by the mass production of behaviour, and we are very much influenced by what others might say about us.


Can you think of a behaviour that has become unacceptable or acceptable by society as perceptions change?

How we talk about certain groups within society has changed as recognition of the human rights of the individual influences our discussion or our actions towards the disciplining of children can be the focus of discussion due to the attitude to physical correction. Whatever side we fall on in the argument we have to admit that we are influenced by what others think of us.

So, how do we respond to the child who is demonstrating challenging behaviour? We can all remember at time a child or young person started to play up, as we sometimes call it and the behaviour begins to get out of hand. Let us start to unravel what took place.


Think of a time when you had experience of the child presenting challenging behaviour.

What took place just before the event happened?

What behaviour did the child display?

What were the consequences of that behaviour?

What you are building up here is a better picture of what took place that may have triggered the behaviour.

Why do we look at the situation like this? We do it so that we can understand if there were any specific triggers for the behaviour. There may have been something that upsets the young person or something in their lives that may be causing anxiety. If the young person is not able to effectively communicate their difficulty with this specific issue they may demonstrate difficult behaviour. It is also an opportunity to explore how the behaviours were responded to. This is very important as our response to behaviour may cause the behaviour to subside or to escalate. In the next section we will look into how we do things in a more effective way to help with this.


Try to think of factors which might influence behaviour which can be seen as problematic in service users of care agencies.

Some of the factors that can affect behaviour that I came up with are:

• Individual factors such as a hearing loss, visual impairment, head injury

• Environmental factors such as poor quality of care, few friends or institutionalised discrimination

• Emotional factors such as poor self-esteem, perhaps caused by some of the environmental factors I mentioned

• Cognitive factors such as difficulty with trying different ways of dealing with difficult situations or of communicating needs

As you can see there are things that affect behaviour from within the individual (Internal) and from what is around them (External).

The section on Gentle Teaching offers one method of dealing with challenging behaviour.


Special Connections Available online at: http://www.specialconnections.ku.edu/ [Accessed 08/06/12]

Thompson, N., 2005, Understanding Social Work - Preparing for Practice. 2nd Edition. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan

Category: Social Care