3 - 5 min read

5 Ways To Handle Your Child's Challenging Behaviors

Have you ever done the countdown? That one where you are desperate for some reprieve after a long day of raising a strong-willed child?

Four hours left… two.

Thirty minutes… any second now… tag team. 

Have you ever done the countdown? That one where you are desperate for some reprieve after a long day of raising a strong-willed child?

This is how I felt the past few weeks as I watched the clock, waiting for my husband to get home so I could come up for air… regain some footing… hide away and cry or mindlessly scroll social for a second… while trying to ignore the guilt I felt for thinking what I was thinking: I really just can’t stand my child right now!

There are times when power struggles and big emotions take over. I wanted to be the sturdy leader of our home, but honestly, this leader was tired, burnt out, and overwhelmed. Parenting was feeling more and more like something I had to do to my child (redirect) instead of something I had with him (a relationship). I was constantly on behavior patrol, chasing the tail of meltdowns and challenging behaviors, never able to get ahead. 

The baby I once held in deep admiration and love became a five-year-old that I looked at with confusion, concern, and fear. Was I raising a future lunatic? He was hardly recognizable. 

I was at a crossroads. Kind of like that song, “Do I Stay Or Do I Go Now?” Part of me needed to put space between me and my child’s hitting, yelling, intensity, and what felt like outright defiance. The other part of me knew I could never do that, not in the long-term anyway. 

Our children will often ask for love in the most unloving of ways. And it is when they are their most challenging that they need us most. So instead of pulling back, I leaned in. And in following these steps, my child’s behavior transformed (and so did our relationship).

1. I shifted my mindset toward self-care. It was no longer an option. It was a necessity. A yoga class or dinner with a friend or sipping my tea before the household woke, or reading a chapter of that book I have wanted to read for months now after the house fell silent to sleep. I chose something every day - sometimes small and sometimes bigger - to reclaim my sovereignty. In filling up myself, I had more to pour out for my children. 

2. I started asking questions. My child’s behavior is communication of something, but what? When I paused to reflect, I realized that my son was asking for three things: more connection, consistency, and power. When I remained curious, instead of fearful, I was able to get in front of his big emotions and behaviors. They were no longer “annoying” or “too much” but rather a call for help - data to his pain, unmet needs, and immaturity. 

3. I focused on my son’s need for connection. One night, snuggled in his bed, I said, “Sometimes it seems like things feel hard in your body. I notice it when you’re jumping on the couch or when you’re yelling or when your brother gets hit. I am wondering, is there something you want and need from mama during those times?” My son followed up after some thought, “I want attention.” When our children feel connected, they don’t feel the need to do undesirable things to get our attention. And so I taught my son how to advocate for his unmet need by offering tools such as tapping my elbow when he wants my focus or simply saying, “I want mama time.” I also dosed up connection with monthly one-on-one dates with each of my sons, and found five to ten minutes of daily special time, which we recorded on a simple chart). Research shows that this act alone can create a more peaceful home as it decreases the competition among siblings for your attachment. 

4. I focused on my son’s need for consistency. Notice where your child is off-routine or has had changes and transitions. For my son, he had a new school and home, to name a few, and it sent his nervous system into a tizzy. Kids process information when it is concrete and predictable, because it computes as “safe.” To help support him, we created daily rituals, bringing old ones with us where we could and adding in new ones where needed. One routine we added was coming together each night to talk about our day. This helped my son process his emotions surrounding the stress of change he had experienced. In addition, we added things like timers, visual aids, and firm (yet respectful) boundaries. Empathetic limits help children feel safe and secure. 

5. I focused on my son’s need for power. This kind of goes hand in hand with the tip above. Not only is it age-appropriate for children to explore their autonomy, but they will also cling to power when they have had significant change or stress to feel more in control. Knowing this, I offered my child agency via choices, asking for his help, and inviting him to be the leader of certain tasks. I also communicated my trust (“I trust you to put the milk back when you are done.” “I trust you to stop at the end of the aisle and wait for me.”) This boosted my child’s confidence because he saw the confidence I had in him.

Parenting feels hard because it is hard. And it isn’t our fault. It’s also not our child’s fault. They are always moving from a place of development. But, because I am the adult with a mature cortex, I began noticing my goals when there was disarray in my home, particularly with my kids. Was I attempting to be right, to control, or to connect? If my answer was anything but connection, I paused and started again. This was a big help in managing my own emotional regulation amongst my child’s dysregulation. 

Sometimes, we can’t help but want to pull away from our children when they are challenging to be around. What I have realized is that the more time and attention I give them, really leaning into their misbehavior, the more they feel connected. The more they want to cooperate and collaborate. The more they are free to be who they are without the internal overwhelm that is always searching for threats and asking, “Am I safe? Am I loved? Am I valued?” 

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Ashley Patek is the Content Director for Generation Mindful. Ashley is an occupational therapist, certified lifestyle/parenting coach, and mama to four children; two boys and two daughters born to Heaven. She believes that parenting starts with us as parents and focuses on the whole-parent, whole-child, and whole-family dynamic.