Tips For Parenting Children With Challenging Behaviour

Challenging behaviour is any behaviour that interferes with children’s learning, development and success at play; is harmful to the child, other children or adults; or puts a child at high risk for later social problems or school failure.

Parenting a child with challenging behaviour is a challenge — but it is one that parents can overcome with the appropriate strategies.


This resource sheet offers ideas that have been proven to work — and which can benefit all children, not just those with challenging behaviour.

  • Be sure your child knows that you love them even if you don’t always like their behaviour. Every day — perhaps at bath time, perhaps when you’re walking home from childcare — set aside time to have fun together. Give them your undivided attention, let them choose the activity, and make sure they know you like playing with them. These positive moments nourish self-esteem and point the way to more positive moments.
  • Encourage appropriate behaviour and minimize the opportunities for challenging behaviour. These tactics are important because in the first decade of life every experience, positive and negative, affects the permanent wiring of the brain. You can build appropriate patterns if you anticipate trouble, prevent the difficult situation from occurring, and help your child to remember what to do instead of correcting their mistakes.
  • Make your home an environment where your child can succeed. Remove fragile objects, create comfortable play areas, select toys that interest them, and keep them well organized and within their reach.
  • Plan activities around your child’s needs. If they have tantrums when hungry, give them a snack before you go shopping. If you serve lunch on the kitchen table, suggest they do their puzzles on the coffee table, so they won’t have to put them away when it’s time to eat.
  • Set clear limits and enforce them consistently. Your child needs to know what you expect. But be sure that you have the time and energy to carry through. If you are already late for work, it’s okay if they leave the Legos on the floor.
  • Create routines and stick to them. Children feel more comfortable when they know what’s coming next. For the same reason it helps to give advance notice of changes in activity (“You can slide down three more times, and then it’s time to go home”).
  • Learn to recognize anxiety in your child. When a child whines, that is your cue to stop sorting laundry, give them a smile, ask if you can help, and listen closely. If you can catch the problem at this early stage, you can head off challenging behaviour.
  • Provide outlets for releasing excess energy. Children need daily physical activities, outside as much as possible, such as running, sports or long walks.
  • Offer a limited choice when you see trouble coming (“Do you want your milk in the red cup or the blue one?”) and guide your child’s behaviour by telling them what to do instead of what not to do (“Ask your friend if you can play with the toy,” not “Don’t grab”). Be patient if they need exactly the same directions an hour later — they are young, they forget and they need to practice.
  • Put yourself in your child’s shoes and try to figure out what they get from the challenging behaviour. Do they get your attention (positive or negative)? Do they avoid something they dislike or aren’t good at? Does the atmosphere become calmer (or more exciting)? Once you know what the challenging behaviour brings them, you can help them to get it in a more acceptable way.
  • Periodically, get away from it all. Parents need a chance to rejuvenate themselves.
  • Stay calm. When things don’t go smoothly, take a deep breath and count to five. By showing your child that you can handle the situation with a cool head, you become their best role model.


When nothing seems to work and your child loses control, give them space to collect themselves.

  • Stand between them and the rest of the world — but at a safe distance. Don’t try to move them.
  • Don’t confront them. To keep them from feeling trapped, stand sideways, compose your face, and don’t look them in the eye.
  • Don’t talk. They aren’t ready to listen yet.
  • When they have calmed, talk to them quietly. Help them to name their feelings (“You were pretty angry”) and to distinguish between feelings and actions (“It’s okay to feel angry, but it’s not okay to throw chairs”). Let them know that you love them and help them to think about how they can solve the problem next time.


Adapted from Meeting the Challenge: Effective Strategies for Challenging Behaviour in Early Childhood Environments by Barbara Kaiser and Judy Sklar Rasminsky (Ottawa: Canadian Child Care Federation, 1999)