How I try to understand behaviours and the hidden reasons behind them

to effectively manage behaviours you need to understand why they are happening


Addressing behaviours is often like solving a mystery. Just focus on the behaviour and you will likely end up frustrated, hoarse and defeated. Try to work out the reasons behind the behaviours, and you have a greater chance of successfully reduced the unwanted behaviours.

I have previously written about dealing with my son's challenging behaviours which often left me feeling overwhelmed, and the questioning of whether our parenting was to blame. I searched for weeks on end for answers on how to stop a variety of behaviours including biting, constantly shouting, meltdowns, refusing to co-operate and not paying attention in class.

No matter what we tried the behaviours got worse. Our son refused to listen and life became increasingly difficult. The lowest point came the day that he was found holding a cushion over a classmates face. I was mortified and concerned that my son was beyond help, as nothing we said made any difference and we felt powerless to change his behaviours.

Something had to change. We had to change.

Understanding more about anxiety and meltdowns, helped us to reframe our thinking and move away from thinking that we needed to discipline the behaviours we wanted to stop. It was a leap of faith, and one that many people around us didn't agree with. After all, you don't want to let children get away with "naughty behaviour". Just think of how much worse they will get without being disciplined.

Let's stop for a minute and think about what we were trying to achieve. We were trying to stop the behaviours. Discipline is just one way of trying to achieve this. In our case, disciplining negative behaviour and rewarding positive behaviour wasn't working. Our son didn't seem to be in control of his actions, it was as if he was permanently in a state of "fight or flight". Trying a different approach does not mean that we are ignoring the behaviour, is just means that we are trying to find a more productive way of addressing it.

So we started to ask why.

With each new incident, we tried to understand more about what was happening. What were the events leading to the incident? Were there any common factors prior to the incidents? Could our son have sensory issues? Could our son be anxious?  If so, what could be the source of that anxiety? Did our son have the skills to effectively deal with challenging situations?

We began to build a picture of where the real issues were, and were able to identify the triggers which would lead to negative behaviours.

This included:

  • Sensory and proprioception issues
  • Social communication difficulties
  • Difficulty adjusting to uncertainty & unexpected change
  • Over-stimulation in social events
  • Challenges with seeing something from another person's point of view
  • Emotional self-regulation & impulse control
  • A need to feel in control
  • Limited understanding of the impact his actions have on other people


By spending time working out and adressing the underlying reasons, we have been able to address the behaviours which have largely disappeared and we are no longer in the state of high alert that we were once in. This has taken us years to understand, and there are parts of the picture that still aren't clear but we are getting there.

We now look out for early warning signs. As soon as I start to see the signs, I take a step back and try to figure out what has changed. Often it is something quite obvious like an impending holiday or birthday, where my son is struggling to manage his excitement or is struggling with the uncertainty of what to expect. Other times it is less obvious and we spend weeks trying to work it out. Focusing on trying to understand the reasons has boosted my own resilience as I no longer feel powerless to change things, and know that when things get difficult it will pass as soon as we identify the reason.

Interestingly, my son is not the only person that I use this approach with. I have noticed that I am increasingly using this approach at work. If someone becomes increasingly difficult or confrontational at work, the first thing I do is to try work out why. As a project manager whose job it is to bring about change, this has helped me to work through challenging moments and to look beyond the immediate problems to identify the true issues which are preventing us from moving fowards.

Dealing with challenging behaviours is still not easy for me and I still have moments when it all gets too much, however focusing on understanding "why" has helped me to cope and to feel more in control. After all, you need to understand where someone is coming from before you can point them in the direction you want them to go.






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Do you struggle with challenging behaviour? How do you work out the hidden reasons? What strategies work for you?


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