Supporting Parents to learn about the challenging behaviour in their child/teen: How much, why and what to consider

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Challenging behaviour in childhood and adolescent is ubiqitious.  All children and teens will argue back, be deceitful, fail to follow instructions and act angrily, rudely and unfairly towards peers.   Community surveys show almost all toddlers show aggressive behaviour and even in the middle years, over 60% of parents report concerns about their child acting aggressively at least once over the preceding 12 months.  One research study found that non-compliant behaviour was more frequently expressed a concern at a pediatricians office than physical health concerns.  

However, while a small percent (between 1-9% have more persistently and troubling challenging behaviour and meet the criteria for an oppositional defiant or conduct disorder), challenging behaviour generally reduces in frequency and severity gradually over time. 

There are many ways parents can help children and teens through this process.

For example, one consistent research finding is that parents who are aware of the details of their children and teen's lives have young people who are less likely to act in persistently challenging ways.  And in particular, aware of the challenges and problems their children face.  For example, children who do well have parents who know about:

- The ongoing social challenges or conflict they are having with others
- The challenges they are having with study or learning behaviour
- The situations their children have not handled well and shown frustration and unhelpful behaviours
- The areas they need support and help in - with learning, behaviour and relationships

This is called "parental knowledge" and many decades of research have found a strong relationship between high parental knowledge and lower rates of challenging behaviour (Crouter and Head 2002; Dishion and McMahon 1998; Sampson and Laub 1994; Weintraub and Gold 1991).  

More recently however researchers have been digging further into this issue and asking this question:  how exactly do parents find out about what is going on for their child - and does how they get this knowledge this affect their child's well being and their relationship with the child?

One important study in 2000 by Stattin and Kerr found that a high level of parental knowledge was most closely tied to challenging behaviour in young people when this parental knowledge was gained by child and teen self-disclosure.  In other words, children with the least challenging behaviour as time passed were those who independently told their parents about what was happening for them.

Not only that, some research has suggested that a higher level of parents "soliciting" information from children is associated with a higher level of behaviour problems.  In other words, some studies found that the more questions a parent asked at one point in time was negatively associated with how much children/teens told them two years later. In these studies asking questions actually seemed to decrease how much children told parents!

I must admit those studies disturbed me as I've long been an advocate of parents asking questions of children and teens and have written several articles and created training videos on this very topic. Uh oh!  So I went back and had a looked at the literature more carefully.   Sure enough when you look at the papers more carefully, some other factors emerge.  For example, a follow up study on this research found that this "ask more questions- get more shut down kids" effect depended on how warm and caring parents were towards their children (Fletcher, et al 2004).  In other words, when parents showed warmth towards their children, they knew more about their children and those children had less problems with challenging behaviour over time.

I also read about a few other factors which research has linked to how much children and teens spontaneously self disclose information:  namely - how much quality time parents spent with young people and how well parents responded to previously self disclosed information.  These studies suggested that when parents have good relationship with children and teens generally, and when they don't "freak out" or get angry when they tell us about their challenges, then not only was asking questions not associated with more child secrecy, but kids and teens also spontaneously told them more information.

What do we take away from this research as professionals working with children, teens and their families?

First, we need to keep working on encouraging parents and carers to have a warm and positive relationship with their kids.   Providing opportunities for parents and children/teens to connect in therapy rooms and classrooms (positive joint activities), helping parents/carers to see their child/teen's strengths and areas of growth, providing training and education (where appropriate) on how families talk to, care about and connect with each other, supporting parents to take time to look after themselves so they can look after their young person, teaching children and young people to talk to, care about and show interest in their parent - all of this is vital (depending of course on the situation and context we work in).

This work is not easy of course, but supporting and encouraging loving and warm relationships between parents and children is one of the most important things we do.

Second, given the importance of parental knowledge, we should be supporting parents to know the challenges their child face. 

Depending on the context this might mean different things.

  • It might mean helping parents/caregivers know how to ask questions - gently and kindly of their children. I've just finished the Partner article for parents in which I include a number of questions that parents might like to ask about the potential areas of challenge their young person might be experiencing (which they might not know about) and how to ask those questions. To read this parent article: click here on "Knowing about our young people's challenges and mistakes: what, how and why".

  • It might also mean helping parents/caregivers know how to ask questions of other professionals working with their child. Sometimes parents don't know what to ask their child's psychologist, teacher, speech therapist, doctor and so forth. As other professionals, if we are working with parents we can help facilitate this process.

  • It might also mean directly providing honest information to parents about the information we have and the assessment we have made about their child's problem behaviours, challenges and struggles.

This last point is tough.  None of us like to give negative feedback.  I know when I see a child in the therapy room struggling with a particular social, emotional or behavioural skill - and it is not something the parent has already identified to me - it can be tempting to ignore it and focus on what the presenting request is.  However I also know that parental knowledge is really important and if I can carefully provide information to parents, as well as ideas about what to do about this information - then this can be extremely beneficial for the child or young person.

Third, we should support parents/carers to know what to do when they hear about an area of challenge/mistake or problem their child/young person experiences.  Remember research suggests how parents respond may determine how and whether children and teens are prepared to talk to them in an ongoing way in the future. 

We want to encourage parents and carers to do the following:

  • Stay calm and try hard to avoid getting angry, inducing shame or being harsh or critical.

  • Thank the child/teen for their honesty if they've been prepared to disclose themselves or answer questions about the problem.

  • Suggesting questions or "quiet reflection" as an initial response in preference to advice - ie "would you like to tell me more about that?", "can I help?", "what was hard about that?" OR "hmm, sounds like you've had a tough day. Shall we talk about it tomorrow?"

  • As always, we want to encourage parents to see challenging behaviour in their children and adolescents as a learning need, way of communicating or coping and/or a natural response to the environment - rather than a deliberate or manipulative way of behaving.

Finally, I want to make the very important point that it is easier for some parents than others to do this work.  Research shows that children who show higher than average amounts of challenging behaviour in their younger years, have parents who subsequently show less warmth and ask less questions as years go by than the parents of children who show less challenging behaviour when they are younger.  In other words, it's not simply parent behaviour leading to child behaviour - but the opposite of this is also true - child behaviour changes parenting.   

This makes sense of course.  When parents are worried, hurt and frustrated by their children's challenging behaviour they understandably find it harder to ask questions, be positive and encouraging and get to know what is happening for a child.  If a child struggles with managing frustration with their peers, eventually parents don't want to ask any more because hearing about it makes them exhausted and more worried, and they are more likely to get increasingly angry and upset with this child.  

But unfortunately this lower level of warmth and positivity, and less question asking -  can then lead to more secrecy and more challenging behaviour in young people - and the spiral continues.

So it's particularly tough for some parents.  I often say to parents, if you feel like you have an open and honest relationship with your child, and low levels of challenging behaviour - please don't take 100% of the credit for this and believe it is all a result of your excellent parenting!  This is unhelpful for our community.  On the other hand, If you feel like your child or teen doesn't tell you anything, and there is a higher level of challenge for them in some areas - please don't descend into a spiral of shame - you are not imagining it, it IS harder for you than some other parents. 

But it's important for all parents of course to not give up.   

As professionals, we want to continue to support parents to show warmth, love, enjoyment of, and care for their children and then - continue to keep working on increasing their awareness of their children's challenges, potential problems and areas of difficulty are, so they are in a better place to coach, help and support them to manage life as well as they can.  

For an overview of the research in this article, start by reading:  Racz, S. J., & Mcmahon, R. J. (2011). The relationship between parental knowledge and monitoring and child and adolescent conduct problems: A 10-year update.Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 14(4), 377-98. doi:

P.S. If you work with primary aged children with high levels of oppositional behaviour and want some more training and resources in this area,  then it might be helpful for you to watch some of our new videos on Calm Kid Pro ("An overview of challenging behaviour in childhood for professionals" and "Understanding the causes of challenging behaviour in childhood").   Click below to find out more.