There can be a great deal of societal noise and judgment around challenging behavior in children and adolescents. If you have a child who has trouble meeting expectations or displays problematic behavior, you no doubt have felt this deeply in the grocery store, on play dates, on the sports field, and from teachers and administrators at school. Teachers are often judged by the level of obedience in the classroom or classroom management skills. It is often assumed that the teacher is inconsistent or doesn’t hold the children accountable when behavior issues arise. Many people expect that one punishment or a system of rewards will magically change how children act. When change doesn’t come quickly, the blame shifts back and forth from the parent (or teacher) to the child repeatedly until everyone feels frustrated and dissatisfied by everyone else's actions or perceived lack thereof!
Where does unwanted behavior come from? What best supports behavior change, and how long does it really take? What can we do in the meantime to best support the children in our lives? We will look at these questions and give some steps to start the behavior change process.
Concerning or challenging behavior can take many shapes and sizes in children and adolescents. It can look like refusals, defiance, yelling, cursing, throwing things, tantrums, and even physical aggression and self-harm. These types of behavior can result from intense emotions and an inability to control or think through how one’s behavior impacts others. It can also stem from facing a problem they don’t know how to solve. Their best solutions can often cause other problems, impact others negatively, and/or negatively impact their future. When we view these culprits of challenging behavior as willful, purposeful choices, it causes adults to be frustrated and can make staying calm difficult. Science tells us that strong emotions are contagious; the more upset we become, the more upset the child becomes, and vice versa. Viewing challenging behavior as a struggle to manage emotions or a result of a lack of good problem-solving skills can change how we respond in those moments and lead to more empathy for the youth, potentially leading to better outcomes.
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The time it takes to change behavior can vary widely and is dependent on a number of factors. An unwanted behavior can sometimes take days or weeks to change and sometimes months or years. It can depend on how long the behavior has been happening, how much stress the person is under, how many unwanted behaviors there are, and how often it is happening. It can also depend on caregiver responses and the environment the person is in. Unsafe and unpredictable environments can seriously limit the child’s ability to change behaviors and may lead to an increase in behaviors despite everyone’s best efforts. The other important factor that can impact the time it takes to change behavior is the strength of a person’s thinking skills. Someone with strong skills in problem-solving, frustration tolerance, and flexible thinking may be able to change behavior more quickly than someone who is still developing those skills. The strength of a person’s skills is very much dependent on their age, what skills they have had practice with, and the degree of support they have with skills practice.
When we look at the culprits of challenging behavior—inability to manage emotions and problem-solving skill development—it's no wonder it takes a lot of time to change. If you have or work with a child with concerning behavior, no doubt you have tried different ways to change that behavior. You may have received advice to use a rewards system, stricter consequences, or ignore the behavior, hoping it will disappear. Unfortunately, these strategies often fail because they focus on the behavior rather than the causes of the behavior. And even when we work on the causes of the behavior, in that, we help teach children how to manage their intense emotions and build their problem-solving skills; those things take a long time! Think about how long it took your child to learn to speak in sentences- probably from birth to around age 3 or 4. Think about how long it takes a child to learn to read- from preschool with letter recognition to around 3rd grade to read chapter books. That’s if there aren’t any other developmental or learning challenges. It takes time and dedicated interventions to build skills. Brain change happens through small repeated interactions with a child where you increase the difficulty of the task slowly and in small increments that the child can handle.
For example, if you have a child that is struggling to learn to read, an assessment would be done to figure out what was the cause of the challenge (dyslexia, sight problem, comprehension problem, etc.), then specific strategies would be identified to help those underlying issues. You wouldn’t, for example, give them a reward or consequence to try to make them read or ignore it and hope it gets better! Yet that is exactly what we are told to do with behavior. We expect it will take a while to address dyslexia to improve reading skills. Yet, with behavior, we often get frustrated when there is no quick fix.
In some ways, you can! Be intentional about opportunities for problem-solving and talk to your children about the emotions they are feeling and reacting to.
There are a couple of things that you can do to support your child as they are building skills. The first thing is to focus on your regulation. Try to view your child’s challenges as a lack of skills to manage emotions and problem-solve. That will help you stay calmer and think more clearly about how to support them. Try to recognize when the behavior is triggering you and implement calming strategies before responding to your child.
Second, focus on helping your child calm down and stay regulated. Engage in calming activities with them. Examples are deep breathing, blowing bubbles, swinging, coloring, or playing a game like Uno or basketball. The key here is that an adult does this with them rather than telling them to do it on their own, which could feel like a punishment rather than support.
Third, practice being curious, not furious, with your child. When there are struggles, ask lots of questions and try to understand what is going on from their perspective.
While they are building skills, they will need your support to help them. Ignore all the parenting and societal noise out there about stricter consequences. Your child will be better able to deal with life’s challenges if they can regulate their emotions better. Like anything else they are learning, they need you to help them! If there is a problem, try to understand it from your child’s point of view and help them solve it.
Finally, try not to rush behavior change. You can provide lots of practice for skills development and attempt to improve those skills. However, focusing solely on the behavior can cause harm. It can impact a child’s self-esteem and sense of confidence in their abilities. Exclusively targeting the behavior can also induce feelings of guilt and shame, which could hold back or prevent skills from developing. Behavior change takes time!