Challenging behavior at home? Learn why & what to do (part I of III)

Challenging behavior is a big agonizing unruly topic. Working with it is crucial to peace at home so this will be the first in a series of 3 to unpack it and offer effective solutions. I work with lots and lots of parents whose kids are strong willed and do challenging behavior like hitting, not cooperating, yelling back, stonewalling, getting intensely angry, fighting with siblings, breaking and throwing things plus much more.

The parents all want to know the same 2 things. First, they want to understand why their kid is doing this challenging behavior. Then, they want to clearly understand what they can do to stop it. Since I had my own kids and have studied this for 15 years, I have information that will help. Even better, Bounceback Parenting author and mother, Alissa Zorn and I have created a community for parents exactly for this. It's called The Real Peace Place.

First, we need to understand what challenging behavior is and why it happens. That's what we'll focus on today as knowing the problem helps give us a different lens so we can respond better. I don't know about you, but when my daughter would yell, refuse, kick the door in, or scream "No, I won't!" I wouldn't respond well. I would get triggered and yell back, punish, get alternately angry and frustrated or hopeless. When she'd do this in public I'd feel embarrassed, mortified. When she'd do something to her little sister, I'd feel Mama Bear protective energy and dominate her; then it would get worse.

Here is the range and some examples of challenging behavior so we are all talking about the same thing.

  • yelling

  • hitting

  • spitting

  • screaming

  • whining

  • pouting

  • lying

  • throwing things

  • kicking in doors

  • fighting with siblings

  • resisting school

  • being uncooperative to get ready

  • having a hard time transitioning

  • not wanting to go

  • throwing a tantrum when they don't get what they want

  • refusing to do chores

Out of the blue or predictable and preventable?

One of the hardest parts is that these challenging behaviors seem to come out of no where and with great intensity, often at inconvenient times. But is this actually true?

Each child is unique and how full their tank of resources fluctuates as well. The demands that come at them change too, meaning challenging behavior will come and go. This is one of the keys I observed: my child's behavior is not always challenging. In fact, it's predictable and over time, preventable.

Why does challenging behavior happen?

In my research over the past 15 years and working with the Enneagram tool, I've found kids are born with different mindsets. If you have more than one child, you know how different they are. One of the mindsets is called 'The Challenger'. My observation and experience is that the most intense and frequent challenging behavior is with kids born with this mindset.

All kids do challenging behavior at one time or another. In fact, challenging behavior is essential; it is communicating their need to connect to values. Values like being seen, acceptance, support, ease, belonging, understanding and many more. It is a guide to what matters, what’s important. They are asking for support. They are asking for permission to feel. In fact, it’s a gift to support our growth as humans; it just comes disguised as yelling, hitting, lying, non-cooperation, spitting, resisting, sneaking, and fighting.

Challenging behavior happens more frequently when their or our self-care tank is low or empty.

Let's clear up some myths

Leading with challenging behavior is NOT because they are inherently manipulative, limit testing, willful, coercive nor unmotivated. Blaming these kids is not the answer. I've found this is the prevailing thought, "all kids should be well behaved" and this lens of them only makes it worse.

It is also NOT because we as parents are not good enough, permissive, inconsistent, passive, too nice or not firm enough. Blaming the parent is also not the answer. The research I've done shows this is the current wisdom of what's wrong with unruly, out of line kids; it's the parents fault. This lens, just makes a hard situation worse. It adds judgement and shame on top of pain, frustration and embarrassment .

So why do these particular kids consistently lead with challenging behavior?

It is a combination of their Challenger mindset clashing with the prevailing parenting wisdom of unilateral control. Dr. Ross Greene of The Explosive Child and the Collaborative Proactive Solution method which I highly recommend, describes this well. "But if we solve (power struggles) unilaterally, through imposition of adult will (referred to in the model as “Plan A”), then we’ll only increase the likelihood of challenging episodes and we won’t solve any problems durably."

The Challenger mindset

The Challenger mindset hates to be controlled or told what to do. The unilateral, 'power over', 'I'm the boss and I say so', controlling, punishing parenting methods are like pouring gasoline into an explosive fire. It sets the stage to bring out the worst in the child with this mindset.

You might find it works great on the other children in the family, but it triggers (which is another word for threatens), the one with the Challenger mindset. When we approach these kids with this controlling mindset they don't feel understood and it is like waving a red flag in front of a bull.

All kids can put on this Challenger mindset at various times when their tank is empty and their values seem imperative. Ones born with a Challenger mindset will have a harder time taking it off at all.

The lens you see your child through makes all the difference

I hope you're starting to see that understanding our unique, spirited, defiant amazing child, as one who has a Challenger mindset and therefore often does challenging behavior to get their needs met as they lack the intuition and skills to respond any other way. This lens of them is crucial to solving this puzzle. Understanding how we approach this child, the labels we use and the lens we see them through is a key.

The goal is to learn how to move from power struggles to peace.

Next post, we’ll discuss more why these kids lead with challenging behavior and why what we as parents do usually makes it worse. We’ll also get into the steps towards solutions.

We have a community of like-minded parents all working with kids with Challenger mindset called The Real Peace Place. If you'd like ongoing support, we welcome you. You don't have to do this alone and it doesn't have to be so hard. For more information: