Parent's Guide: challenging behaviour
Parents generally want the best for
their children. Despite obstacles presented by a brain injury,
parents can still bring out their strengths, help them to ride out
the difficulties, and enable them to develop to their full
Bringing out the best in a young person means:
- Enabling each child to express fully his/her own talents and
- Learning to build caring and satisfying relationships with
- Acquiring the skills to be as independent as possible, and take
on responsible roles in life.
Two qualities are of particular importance in this process,
self-esteem and resilience - the ability to handle life's 'knocks'
and challenges. The support, love and respect of family members
and, especially during adolescence, of peers and friends, are the
foundation for building resilience and self-esteem.
A brain injury can make it more difficult, but
there are lots of positive things you can do to help your child
build his/her skills, self-esteem and resilience.
Bringing out the best in your child also involves enabling and
encouraging them to be involved in the normal run of community
activities - doing the things that friends and peers are doing.
Swimming at the local pool, joining the scouts, getting a pizza
with friends, all help to build self-esteem and confidence and
focus on the person rather than the problem.
Encouraging appropriate behaviour
The best basis for helping your child is a loving, caring
relationship - not always easy in the face of very difficult
behaviour. Try to see your child as separate from the difficult
behaviour-'I love you, but I don't like what you're doing'. This
can help you to work together on the problem, without a negative
focus on the child.
Parents in general do lots of things to bring out the best in
their child, and all these things can benefit young people with
a brain injury:
Set specific rules and structures for particular situations, and
rehearse these each time a similar situation is coming up.
Praise or reward behaviours you want to encourage but don't
reward behaviours you don't want to see-ignore them or, if
necessary, offer comment or an agreed punishment quietly, without
drawing extra attention to the behaviour.
Help your child to learn from experience by talking over what he
or she did right or wrong, and how there might be other ways of
Show your child, by your actions, how to handle difficulties and
get along with others.
Behave in the ways you want your child to behave-for example, be
caring, empathetic and respectful of others.
Most importantly, young people with a brain
injurymay need very concrete, detailed and explicit
instructions and rules about what to do in particular situations
(for example, who they should or should not hug), and parents may
need to set very firm limits and keep a check on them.
Understanding challenging behaviour
In trying to understand challenging behaviour:
- Try to put yourself in your child's shoes, to see the issue
from his or her perspective
- See behaviour as a form of communication and try to understand
- Be aware of your own responses as sometimes kids 'push our
buttons', know how to make us react, and we respond
Young people with a brain injury can take
responsibility for their behaviour, given the right supports. They
can learn appropriate ways of behaving, but - like everyone -
they'll learn best when the goal is something they want to achieve
for themselves. It's important to respect young people's own
choices and priorities.
Managing agitation, frustration &
It's not uncommon for young people with a brain injury to behave
in ways that are challenging or sometimes aggressive. They may have
difficulty coping with small upsets and not even know why they are
angry. Everybody feels angry, irritated or annoyed at times, but we
all need ways of dealing with these feelings in ways that are
appropriate, socially acceptable, and constructive. Physical
violence, verbal abuse, avoiding someone, or just 'sitting on' the
emotion are all unhelpful.
Very young children often hit out when they are angry, but over
time they learn to use words (even if these aren't very polite).
Saying 'I hate you' rather than delivering a punch shows that a
child has learned the first step in anger management-a shift from a
physical to a verbal way of expressing anger. This shift deserves
praise and recognition. Later on, a child may learn how to feel
angry less often, as they learn to negotiate and see another
person's point of view.
Young people with a brain injury may have
difficulty developing these more mature ways of managing anger.
Cognitive problems can make it difficult to see things from another
point of view.
Other people's reactions vary. Some might try to ignore the
problem, or blame somebody, or demand that the young person change,
or they might just become upset. In the long term, though, these
responses generally don't deal with the situation very
Conflicts may be frequent and intense, and discipline that works
with other children might not be effective. Parents may find it
hard to apply discipline at all.
These situations can be very distressing for parents and
families. They can also be distressing to the young person-nobody
likes to feel that their behaviour is out of control. The first
aim, then, is to find ways for you and your child to regain a sense
of control over your lives.
Some helpful strategies
Young people with a brain injury can usually learn to avoid
having their anger boil over into physical aggression. The
following suggestions may help to manage challenging behaviour.
It doesn't help to confront the person or respond angrily.
Ignore the behaviour, or simply say quietly that it's not
appropriate now, and reward and praise other behaviours that are
positive and appropriate. You can also set limits on what is
acceptable behaviour-shouting may be OK, but no threatening
gestures. Think about what you're willing to do to enforce these
Make sure the standards you set are acceptable (and applied) in
all situations in which your child must function. The whole family
may have to make some adjustments - for example, brothers and
sisters may need to accept the same rules.
Give praise when your child stays within the limits of
acceptable behaviour or does something that avoids confrontations -
for example, learning to walk away.
If temper or aggression is a significant problem, talk to a
specialist (a neuropsychologist, or a psychologist who has
expertise in working with young people, and preferably one with
experience of brain injury). Don't wait too long
before doing this-it's best to tackle problems before they become
entrenched, for the sake of both the young person and the
A specialist may suggest a fairly structured 'behaviour
management' approach. This involves working with you and your child
to analyze what is happening, why it is a problem, and to reach
agreement on how everyone involved will behave in the future -
essentially a system for rewarding behaviours you want to encourage
and ignoring those you want to discourage. The same strategies need
to be used at home, at school, in day programs and so on -
everywhere the young person is involved.
Anger can be a result of being misunderstood, and a longer term
goal is to help the young person to develop socially appropriate
ways to express feelings and opinions in words - to use language
more effectively. A speech pathologist can help in this area.
References and further information
Many thanks to Brain Foundation Victoria for permission to
adapt their material for this fact sheet.