Dealing with our Children's Challenging Behaviour


The most unenjoyable moments in parenthood are often when our children are behaving in challenging ways. We may feel powerless, frustrated, angry and stuck when our children are uncooperative, emotional, demanding or aggressive. Old styles of parenting in our culture tell us that difficult behaviour is because children don't know how to behave properly and that they need to be taught better or punished. Or we are lead to believe that our children are "naughty" or "difficult" or that there is something wrong with them. But when we respond in these ways, we are simply managing the symptoms and teaching our children that there IS something wrong with them and that they only deserve love and kindness when they are behaving in ways we enjoy - that our love (and hence their lovableness) is contingent on them behaving "well". 

Fortunately, Aware Parenting has a different perspective and very effective strategies to support children back to being their naturally cooperative, loving and gentle selves. It shows us how to deal with the causes of challenging behaviour, rather than just managing symptoms in these authoritarian ways, that lead children to create really painful beliefs about themselves that persist into adulthood and that are so detrimental to our relationships. 

Why do children "misbehave"? 

The Aware Parenting perspective is that our children are inherently good and their behaviour is always trying to communicate to us and that there is always a legitimate reason for their challenging behaviour. This supports us to be curious about what might be going on for our children and how to best help them. We understand that all the challenging behaviour that we see in our children is not because that’s how children are, but rather because of how children feel and what they are needing and understanding. This approach shows us that children are by nature loving, good and deserving of our loving support, and that, when they are being difficult and uncooperative or aggressive, there are 3 possible reasons why:  what our children are thinking or not understanding, what their unmet needs are and  how they are  feeling.

When we then use this information to guide how we respond to children, we see their challenging behaviour reduce. This understanding also supports us to be more compassionate with ourselves and our children when we can see that they aren't deliberately being annoying or difficult but rather just need our help. And we are always deserving of more compassion too because parenting is hard and we aren't designed to be doing this in nuclear or single parent families, alone. And because we are living in a culture that pushes us to shame, guilt, judge and compare - ourselves and our children.  

It is always helpful with Aware Parenting to remind ourselves of the core focus on us offering connection and secure attachment, which is also not easy in this culture where it is often very challenging to meet these needs for our children. The second core aspect of aware parenting shows us that it's also really important to not use punishments, rewards or bribes. This is because they don't work, they damage our relationships, they leave our children feeling powered-over, coerced, manipulated and controlled and, again, are designed to modify behaviour rather than address the root cause of the behaviour.

So, when we have this understanding, we are able to stay closely connected with our children and to look underneath behaviour to see what is the cause. We can then respond to their behaviour in compassionate and loving ways that meet their legitimate needs for unconditional love and acceptance and help to make parenting be more enjoyable, loving, connected - more closely resembling how we evolved to raise our children.

Things to remind ourselves in difficult moments:

It is often really helpful for us to be exploring what we are telling ourselves and whether that is helping us to stay connected and supporting or not.  For example, if we are telling ourselves that our children are being deliberately annoying and should know better by now, it leads to us feeling disconnected from them, frustrated by them and inpatient. If however we are telling ourselves that they are struggling and need our support,  that they are not doing this on purpose, we are more likely to feel strongly connected and loving towards them and motivated to support them with loving kindness. 

So we can remind ourselves of the 3 things underneath their behaviour and start to explore what we think might be going on for them. 

  1. Needing more information or not understanding. It is often the case that our children need more information as they are making sense of the world around them and are often absorbed in play. 
  2. Their needs are not being met. Most of our children will have many unmet needs because of how the culture in which we are raising our children, that is so far from how we are evolved to live to thrive. Unmet needs are often the source of challenging behaviour and create feelings of agitation and emotional pain. Or perhaps their behaviour is them trying to meet a legitimate need. Maybe they have physical needs that are unmet too, like being tired or hungry.
  3. Accumulated painful feelings. There are many sources of stress for children, regardless of how attuned and attached we are as parents. These might be big traumatic experiences that we all understand to be difficult, such as war, death or separation in the family. They can also be lots of little stressful experiences that all add up on top of each other to be really difficult for our children to cope with. When our children experience something big that they perceive to be threatening to them, or lots of little challenges, it pushes their bodies into hyperarousal or dissociation nervous system responses. 

Children are also born wanting to heal, with innate biological mechanisms to release and heal from stress which they do spontaneously when they feel safe and supported to use these mechanisms. If we are able to support them to utilise their healing mechanisms of crying with loving support, raging, laughter and certain types of play, they will release these stresses and naturally return to their loving, calm, connected state. 

If we are not able to support them in these ways in that moment, either because we don't understand this information or because we don't have the capacity in the moment, then they will have to suppress these feelings and hold them inside. The most common cause of challenging behaviour in our children is accumulated, unreleased stress.

Therefore we need to re-understand behaviour as a legitimate form of communication and to recognise what their behaviour is showing us. We see our beautiful child in front of us, and imagine them waving a red flag and saying "I'm struggling can you please help me? I don't mean to be difficult or annoying and I am simply feeling overwhelmed". We can then be an emotional detective to explore what it might be going on, trust that they know how to heal and that they want to heal and they can heal with our loving support. 

Responding to difficult behaviour:

  1. Give information - so we explain to our children what is going on, what we needing them to do. Often our children lack the information they need or don't yet understand things clearly, so they need us to explain things to them in clear, age-appropriate language. If we give them information and explanations and they continue to behave in a challenging way, we can be clear that it is not a lack of information or a misunderstanding that is underneath their behaviour. So we can then move on to exploring needs and feelings as a cause of their behaviour. 
  2. Meet their needs as much as possible. Children have legitimate core needs for connection, autonomy, choice, agency, safety, fun, etc. etc.. Instead of telling ourselves that they just want attention for example, can we instead see it as a need for connection? We tune into our children and work out what their individual needs are and try to find ways to meet their needs generally. We also try to meet their needs in challenging moments by offering choice or connection or making things fun. It is also helpful for us to ask ourselves if our expectations of our children are realistic or not. 
  3. Listening to their feelings, accepting and supporting tantrums and connecting with play - So we support them to release the energy that was mobilised to fight or to flee, we welcome and hold space for the tears and we offer them compassion. We prioritise creating a sense of emotional safety so that they are able to reconnect or remember the initial painful experiences and to release through tears laughter, sweating, movements, play, shaking, raging and tantrums. We offer them our understanding and acknowledgement, while they let it all out and then return to loving balance and calm. 

This process is hard and it requires us to have a deep trust in the innate wisdom of children and to keep remembering how to cooperate with their innate drive for healing, for balance and for embodied presence. 

Dealing with our own challenging behaviour as parents: 

Often as parents we too can find ourselves "mis-behaving" and having tantrums. Aware Parenting supports us to be responding to our own challenging behaviour in exactly the same way as we do for our children. Sometimes it is because our accumulated stress and unreleased painful feelings from childhood are coming up and causing us to behave in ways that are challenging for others. Sometimes our core beliefs and our acquired cultural conditioning are getting in the way of us being our naturally loving and kind selves.  Sometimes, when we have chronically unmet needs too, we find ourselves being uncooperative, emotional, demanding or aggressive.

Questions to ask ourselves:

  • is there something we are thinking or believing or misunderstanding? Can we bring more compassion, acknowledgement,  and information? Can we be exploring our beliefs and what are we telling ourselves? Can we let go of judgement, blame and shame? Can we learn slowly change our dialogue away from guilt and harshness? Can we find ways to bring connection with an internal voice that aligns with what we truly believe, not what we internalised? We sometimes look for evidence around us that these core beliefs are true, but when we unpack them with more deliberate curiosity, we often find it's exactly the opposite. And when we can tend to these parts, we can then come back to our children with clarity and love. 
  • is there something we are needing? We all have LOADS of unmet needs parenting in this culture, so can we explore what some of our unmet needs are and find ways to meet our needs so we feel more restored, more relaxed, we remember that we matter and our needs matter too. And we model to our children that we want to find ways for everyone to get their needs met. 
  • do we have painful feelings that need to be expressed and heard and released? Learning to connect with our feelings in our bodies is not easy because we mostly learnt from young age to disconnect and dissociate from our feelings. So we re-learn the healthy expression of our feelings by receiving support and empathy. We ask ourselves where these feelings are coming from, and how are they familiar to us. We cry and rage too. When our feelings are heard, it creates deep emotional safety for our children to share their feelings too. And it is so hard for us to help our children heal when we have lots of accumulated feelings ourselves. So finding places to express our big feelings of sadness, outrage, and frustration, really helps our children to do the same. 

Thinking from our child's perspective:

Imagine being a child who is struggling and then behaving in a way their parent finds challenging, because they feel confused or don't understand something, because they have unmet needs which they are trying to meet or because they have accumulated feelings and are feeling stressed. Imagine what it would feel like to then be responded to with love and connection, feeling unconditionally loved and knowing that their parents deeply care. Imagine how it would be to have things explained to them so they are informed and not confused. To have many many of their needs met so they don't have unmet needs for choice, agency, connection, fun, pleasure, beauty , rest and lots more. To know that their needs matter and that their loving parent will acknowledge their needs and find ways to meet them. To learn to tune in and recognise for themselves what it feels like in their bodies to have unmet needs so that they can meet them. To know that, when they have pain of unhealed trauma, and are feeling stressed and upset, their parents will see that. They will hold space for them to utilise their powerful healing mechanisms to release the pain so they don't have to hold onto it. To know that their parents will offer them attachment play to laugh, connect, heal, work through and make sense of their trauma so it's not stuck inside them, causing physical and emotional dis-ease. To know that they can trust themselves and their processes.

When we understand our children's difficult behaviour in this way, and support our children with these beautiful understandings, our children then feel unconditionally loved. They grow up to be adults who understand the causes of their own difficult behaviour and know how to support themselves at every moment to address the cause and return to peace and balance and presence. 

Your parenting coach and mentor

About Joss Goulden

I am a trauma-informed Parenting Coach and a Level 2 Aware Parenting instructor, certified with the Aware Parenting Institute. I have been practising Aware Parenting for 17 years and am the mother of 2 children, aged 19 and 17.

I am also passionate about Homeschooling and Natural Learning. I have homeschooled my 2 children and I have been supporting families with Homeschooling and Natural Learning for many years.

Aware Parenting with Joss

I am so passionate about sharing this beautiful approach with parents. I believe that Aware Parenting is THE solution for so many of the challenges facing the world. - Joss Goulden, Aware Parenting Instructor
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