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The term ‘challenging behaviour’ describes a range of behaviours which interfere with a child or young person’s development, learning and life chances.

Many children and young people with challenging behaviour have severe learning disabilities, but not all. Young people who are autistic, have a sensory impairment, a mental health problem, or a brain injury may also behave in a way that disrupts those around them and can put themselves and others in danger.

This challenging behaviour may include things like:

  • physically hurting others, e.g. hitting, hair pulling or biting
  • hurting themselves, e.g. picking their skin or head banging
  • being destructive, e.g. throwing things, smashing up rooms and breaking windows
  • eating or swallowing inedible items
  • rocking or having tantrums
  • spitting and smearing
  • stripping their clothes off and/or running away.

Seeing your child behaving in this manner can be very upsetting for parents and carers; however, some disabled young people may have no other way to communicate their needs or take control of their lives.

Others may be unable to meet the demands put upon them at home or at school and so will use aggressive behaviour to divert attention and escape the situation.

Challenging behaviour can start at a young age and may continue into adulthood (although many young people do grow out of it). It can make it difficult for a child to make friends or do well at school.

Challenging behaviour is not the same thing as the unwanted or problem behaviour that is perfectly normal for a child or young person of a certain age, e.g. the terrible twos or teenage mood swings.

Helping your child

There is no magic cure for challenging behaviour but there are practical steps you can take do to reduce your child’s frustration and distress, including:

  • helping them to express and do things for themselves
  • focusing on their happiness and doing things they enjoy
  • anticipating and planning for problems in advance
  • finding out if there is anything you can change that might stop the behaviour.

It’s worth keeping a diary to help you work out any common triggers, e.g. a person, place or meal. During outbursts, try to remain calm and divert attention if possible.

Getting professional support

When a child or young person starts behaving in a challenging manner – or their already-challenging behaviour worsens – you should take it seriously.

Children with severe learning disabilities or poor communication skills might be ill or in pain, while those who have not previously behaved in this manner could be showing early signs of mental health problems.

Your GP will be able to refer you to specialist services, including mental health professionals.

Education and exclusion

Schools are required to make reasonable adjustments for the additional learning needs of disabled children; however, there are occasions when a young person’s disruptive behaviour may lead to them being excluded from mainstream school or a pupil referral unit, either temporarily or permanently.

There are strict rules setting out how schools must deal with exclusions.

More information

The Challenging Behaviour Foundation supports children and adults with challenging behaviour.

Mencap’s Learning Disability Helpline offers advice and support to those with a learning disability and their families and carers.

Young Minds has a survival guide for parents who are worried about their child.

Headway provides support for those who have acquired a brain injury since birth.

Autism UK  provides confidential expert advice and support on autism for autistic people, their families and friends.

Contact a Family supports families with disabled children and has produced a free publication called Understanding your child’s behaviour.

Last updated: 21/05/2018