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Challenging & complex behaviours: the message behind behaviour

Information Services


Challenging & complex behaviours: the message behind behaviour

Understanding the cause behind a behaviour leads to effective responses which can have a dramatic impact on future behaviour. 


All behaviour serves a purpose, and therefore communicates a message. This simple statement can work wonders in situations that may otherwise leave you feeling powerless, frustrated and angry.


Challenging behaviours can be very tiring, frustrating and draining for partners, carers and family members, but it can be very empowering to respond positively, instead of just reacting negatively. Looking for the underlying message is usually the first step in providing Positive Behaviour Support. 


Three main messages behind a behaviour

A complex or challenging behaviour usually communicates:

  • an unmet need (e.g. emotional or physical discomfort)
  • expression of mood, such as sadness, anger or frustration, or
  • response to stimulation whether it's too little (e.g. boredom) or too much stimulation (e.g. a noisy crowd).


An example

Helen often screams loudly when her family members are talking with her. This was seen as either bad mood or attention-seeking behaviour by her family until they looked closer - they realised she usually screamed when someone completes sentences for her because she talks slowly.


Unmet need: Helen wants to be able to express herself and resents having control of her own communication taken away.


Expression of mood: Screaming is Helen's way of expressing her frustration at being interrupted.


While this message appears to be very obvious, it is surprising how often we fail to see the message behind certain behaviour. Helen needs time to gather her thoughts and express them because of her brain injury, but family members thought they were helping Helen by finishing sentences for her because it took so long to finish a sentence.

Boredom is a common message

Behaviour specialists report that the most common message behind challenging behaviours is "I'm bored" -  a brain injury can result in unemployment, loss of friendships and difficulty making new friendships. Some behaviours may simply be based on the principle of "any attention is good attention".

This does pose problems for family members, as often the caring role is so demanding that little time and energy may be left for finding recreational activities for their loved one. The Brain Injury Association in your State may have a list of community activities available in your area.


Other common messages behind a behaviour

  • There are too many demands being put on me at once
  • This is an unfamiliar environment/activity and it's disturbing me
  • I've got sensory overload from too much noise/light/overcrowding
  • I'm tired
  • I haven't got the social skills to cope with this situation. 

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