Reframing challenging behavior

A new way to look at challenging behaviors.

Kids can display a number of challenging behaviors. Photo credit: Osborn.
Kids can display a number of challenging behaviors. Photo credit: Osborn.

If you took a survey on the all-time most challenging behaviors that our kids display, what would be in your top five?

  • screaming when they don’t get the things they want
  • fighting with their siblings
  • whining
  • name-calling
  • hitting

These are the top five created by Michigan State University Extension, although there may be many others.  Generally, “challenging behavior” can be defined as the things that children do that repeatedly disrupt, hurt others or destroy property.  Of course, anyone can have a bad day and commit these types of behaviors, but it becomes really challenging when it occurs often and over time.

The cycle
As parents, it is easy to fall into the trap of taking all of this personally. We can start thinking that this behavior is done intentionally to make us angry.  We attribute the negative behavior to the child’s desire to inappropriately manipulate us or manipulate the situation. We don’t like it and we react negatively, maybe even with some challenging behavior of our own.  It becomes a vicious circle of negative behavior leading to more negative behavior.

How do we break the cycle? Early childhood professionals suggest using a tactic called reframing. Reframing is essentially changing how we think about the challenging behavior.  We start the reframing process by putting aside the notion that our child is trying, on purpose, to make us angry. Most children do not enjoy a parent’s display of anger and it tends to frightens and upsets children more than actually satisfying a need. 

Asking questions
We continue the reframing process by asking the question (rhetorically or literally), “What do they want or need that is leading to this challenging behavior?”  Most young children have a few basic physical, intellectual and emotional needs.  They need healthy living conditions, food, rest and fresh diapers. They need a stimulating environment so they don’t get bored.  They need attention; consistent and loving relationships with people.  When we put aside our own discomfort and emotional reaction to the challenging behavior, most parents can figure out what their children need.

Now, ask yourself the next question, “How can we help them obtain what they want using acceptable behaviors?”  As adults, we know how to seek the things we need without resorting to violence or emotional manipulation. This is because we have learned the necessary skills from other adults and children throughout our lives.  As parents, it is now our turn to teach these skills to our children. These skills include how to ask for help, how to offer something in trade, how to share things, how to express our emotions in an acceptable manner and how to calm ourselves. 

Teaching skill fluency
All children can learn to use these social and emotional skills consistently and appropriately.  However, these are complex processes and children often do not learn these skills just by watching how other people act.  Nor do they always learn from hearing their parents tell them how to behave appropriately.  Usually, it takes repeated interventions at critical moments, a calm approach, and demonstrating or modeling the behaviors you want to see.  To learn more about how to cope with challenging behavior and to teach social and emotional skill development, visit the Early Childhood Development page on the MSU Extension website.

Before you can begin to help fill a need and teach a skill, you first have to recognize what is actually going on in a given situation.  That is where reframing comes in.  It gives you “a frame” in which to view the situation.  You will also gain a new perspective that can make all the difference between growth and frustration.

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