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Therapeutic Care

How to manage a child with challenging behaviour

It can be difficult not to get frustrated when your foster child is acting out. Managing their behaviour or understanding why they are behaving like that can be hard work.

For children in the foster system, challenging behaviour may be a coping strategy that helped them feel safe in the past. It can also be a response to the trauma they may have experienced prior to entering care. Learning how to deal with challenging behaviour in your child is an essential part of caring for them.

What Is Challenging Behaviour?

Examples of challenging behaviour in children often include aggression, self-harm, destructiveness and disruptiveness. Most of the time, misbehaving is a part of normal childhood development, as behaviour is one of the ways children learn to communicate.

The reasons for challenging behaviour can include things like poor health, lack of sleep, emotional upset and changes to routine. If your child is misbehaving, its likely they are communicating something to you, even if they don’t necessarily realise it.

One of our Compass Foster carers, Sara, says that most of her foster son’s challenging behaviour surfaces when he’s feeling ‘wonky’. “It’s much easier to manage this behaviour with a calm and positive approach,” she says.

Approaching challenging behaviour with a positive attitude is a constructive and effective way to manage your child when they are acting out. Negative reinforcement can exacerbate aggression and antisocial behaviour, as well as affecting their mental health and self-esteem.

Rewarding good behaviour with positive reinforcement will teach them to continue behaving in a calmer, more agreeable manner.

Try our top five tips for developing your own positive behaviour management strategies.

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1. Have Open Conversations

One of the key strategies for dealing with challenging behaviour in children is being honest. When your child is misbehaving, have a frank conversation about their behaviour. Explain what you expect, and help the child understand the consequences of their actions. Try asking for what you do want from them, rather than what you don’t.

Make it clear that their behaviour is the problem, not them. Listen closely to what they say and be curious about their perspective.

A lot of young people won’t yet have the language to communicate difficult thoughts, worries and feelings, but you can model how to talk about these subjects – over time, this helps your child learn how to communicate using words rather than difficult behaviour.

2. Set Clear Boundaries and Be Consistent

Children need boundaries to feel secure, and that’s especially true for children from unstable back-grounds. Be clear about what is appropriate behaviour and what is not and be consistent about upholding these rules and consequences.

Answer any questions they have about these rules honestly. Explain that their safety and wellbeing is the priority, and that’s why it’s important to have rules and stick to them.

Some children from chaotic back-grounds (where there were few or no rules) will need a bit of extra support to understand and adopt new limits.

3. Give Your Child Choices

The ability to choose empowers children to make their own decisions and take ownership over them. This helps them develop a sense of accountability for their own actions and behaviour.

An easy way to give children choices is to give them options to choose from – they get to pick, but you decide the options!

Let them pick a playtime activity out of several, give them two choices of what to have for supper, or let them decide when to do things – for example, asking them in which order they would like to have a shower and do their homework.

4. Lead by Example

One of the best ways to encourage children to process their emotions more positively is by demonstrating this approach yourself. Let your child see you experiencing your emotions and dealing with them in a healthy way. Talk together about what is difficult right now and encourage them to suggest ideas for how to manage things better.

Sara, our foster carer, says that she and her foster son often check in with each other. “If he’s not feeling great, he lets me know. We have chats about why this might be, and I think that helps.”

“I’m honest with him too. If I’m feeling it a bit that day then I’ll tell him – I’ll keep it light but it’s important to let children see you as human.”

5. Deal With Aggression Calmly

When your child is acting aggressively, try to think about the message behind their behaviour. Keep the focus on why they’re feeling bad and try to create a safe space for them to express themselves.

When they have calmed down, remind them that you are a team that can tackle their emotions together.

It may take some time for your child to open up, so be patient. Encourage them to find words to express what they’re feeling. Slowly, they should start to trust you and develop better ways to communicate their feelings.

How Compass Can Help

At Compass, all our foster carers receive essential training that helps them manage the (sometimes) challenging emotions and behaviours of the children we welcome into our homes. We also offer additional therapeutic care for our children and specialised education plans that are aimed at supporting our young people and ensuring they achieve the best outcomes possible.

If you’d like to make a difference in the life of a child and in your community by becoming a foster carer, please get in touch.


At Compass, we will always provide you with the support you require.