“You are the parent of a young child who is developing the skills to regulate their emotions, and they will be successful in doing so all because of your support.”

What You’ll Learn
  • What are challenging behaviors? 
  • What do challenging behaviors say about your child? 
  • How do you manage challenging behaviors?

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of the grocery store trying to console your child because the yellow popsicles were out of stock and you dared to suggest the orange popsicles instead? 

If you are a parent or caregiver, I have a hunch you’ve experienced some similar challenging behaviors. First of all, you survived and I commend you for all the times you’ve had to blindly navigate these experiences. Now, I would like to prepare you for the next time this happens. Yes, there will be a next time, but you will be so much more effective when responding to your child’s challenging behaviors. Here’s how.

Challenging Behaviors

Let me start by defining what I mean by “challenging behaviors.” I am talking about the meltdowns, the aggressive and physical outbursts, the defiance, and the excessive anger that sometimes occurs in a child’s day-to-day life. These behaviors are challenging. Period. Moreover, these behaviors are those that become a repetitive pattern, interfere with various experiences, and are difficult, for everyone involved, to handle. 

The real key to understanding challenging behaviors, however, is understanding the “why” behind them. Dr. Becky Kennedy says it best: all children “are born with all the feelings and all the intensity of those feelings [and] none of the skills to manage those feelings.” Children engage in challenging behaviors during early childhood as a natural part of their development and as a way to communicate! 

Challenging behaviors typically occur when:

  • there is something that the child wants/needs (tangible)
  • there is something that the child does not want to do (escape/avoidance)
  • the child wants time or a reaction from an adult/peer (attention)
  • it feels good to the child (automatic/sensory)

Challenging Behaviors Bad

Okay, what have we learned? Some behaviors can be challenging, but they are also a form of communication that all children (all humans for that matter) engage in. Challenging behaviors are typical in early development and the ability to manage one’s feelings takes years of practice. And, some children take longer than others to develop these skills!

So let me ask, what do challenging behaviors really say about your child? I’ll give you a hint, in the famous words of Dr. Becky it means, “They are a good kid, having a hard time.” You are the parent of a young child who is developing the skills to regulate their emotions, and they will be successful in doing so all because of your support. 

Having an understanding of what challenging behaviors are and when and why they occur is critical in order to effectively manage such behaviors. What’s more important, however, is the ability to recognize and understand your child beyond these challenging behaviors, and to meet them with compassion and patience as you work to help them learn how to express their thoughts, regulate their emotions, and interact with their environment. Let’s identify those techniques that will help get you there.

9 Strategies for Managing Challenging Behaviors

REMAIN CALM & REGULATE YOURSELF Take a moment to collect your emotions and pause before responding to your child. This will help you respond more rationally and give your child an example of how to regulate their own emotions.
BELIEVE WITHOUT UNDERSTANDING You don’t have to understand why your child is upset to believe that they are – “There is something about this that doesn’t feel good and I believe you.”
USE SIMPLE & POSITIVE LANGUAGE Talk calmly and clearly with your child at their level. Your tone of voice should remain neutral, calm, and non-threatening.
VALIDATE THE EMOTIONS You can validate your child’s emotions while setting clear limits about their behavior – “You are angry that Collin took your toy. It’s okay to feel angry, but I will stop you from hitting. Hitting hurts.”
OFFER ALTERNATIVES Replace “don’t” with “do” and provide your child with an acceptable alternative behavior – “You are feeling angry and that is okay. You can say ‘I’m mad’ or stomp your feet.”
CONTAIN, DON’T EXTINGUISH Contain your child’s behavior, but do not extinguish their feelings. It is never your job to end a meltdown. Help your child move to an area that ensures their safety and allows them to continue to feel.
PROVIDE LOVEABILITY & PRESENCE Remind your child that they are a good kid having a hard time – “I am not scared and I am here to support you when you are ready.”
RE-ENGAGE & CONNECT Point out what happened without shame and help your child understand the incident by reflecting on their emotions and actions.
REGULATE YOURSELF & REFLECT Take a moment to collect your emotions and remind yourself that challenging behaviors are challenging. What was something you did well? Is there anything you could have done better? What techniques were especially effective and which were not?

Empowering Takeaways 

  • All children display challenging behaviors—this is part of their development
  • Behavior = communication
  • Remember to look beyond the challenging behavior
  • Challenging behaviors “bad” child or “bad” parent
  • You have the power to manage challenging behaviors and to help your child learn how to self-regulate
  • You can only help your child regulate if you are regulated yourself
  • A trusting and caring relationship is the key to behavior management
  • It is OKAY to make mistakes and try again

Be vibrant and keep thriving!

This article was last reviewed or updated on August 16, 2023.

About the author: Rebecca is the Head of Family Empowerment and Student Success at SolBe Learning. Rebecca has worked in the field of early education for six years, with a passion to support the optimal development of young children and families.


ChildCare Education Institute. (2022, November 24). How to deal with challenging behaviors in preschool. https://www.cceionline.com/how-to-deal-with-challenging-behaviors-in-preschool/ 

Child Mind Institute. (2022, April 14). Managing problem behaviors at home. https://childmind.org/article/managing-problem-behavior-at-home/ 

Kennedy, B. (n.d.). Deeply Feeling Kids: Part One [MOOC]. Good Inside. https://www.goodinside.com/workshop/1535/deeply-feeling-kids/

Kennedy, B. (Host). (2021, November). Deeply Feeling Kids Need a Different Approach (EP33) [Audio podcast episode]. In Good Inside with Dr. Becky. Good Inside. https://open.spotify.com/episode/3rOGNGVz6wpVRhl9XoSmgb?si=mqZlcewjTK2eDHf5qwBX3A 

Strain, P., Joseph, J., Hemmeter, M. L., Barton, E., & Fox L. (2017, January). Tips for responding to challenging behavior in young children. Pyramid Equity Project. https://challengingbehavior.org/docs/PEP_Tips-responding-challenging-behavior.pdf 

Zero to Three. (2021, April 21). Challenging behavior: Keeping calm and carrying on with ways to address challenging behaviors. https://www.zerotothree.org/resource/challenging-behavior/