Managing challenging behaviour: breaking the conflict cycle

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Children who are exposed to abuse and neglect, or who witness distressing scenes such as domestic violence, can find it difficult to trust or relate to others in a healthy way. They may find it difficult to manage their behaviour or to soothe and calm themselves. They may appear to always be on a short fuse and get angry easily, or lash out at you physically or verbally.  

Some conflict between you and a child in your care is normal, particularly as they become more independent in the teenage years. But when a vulnerable child or young person’s emotions frequently spiral out of control, you may find yourself locked into a destructive conflict cycle.

Staying calm defuses escalating conflict faster than if you try and control the situation

Often our natural response is to take control and make requests through threats that demand compliance or give consequences. But demands for compliance will usually end in a power struggle. This can perpetuate the conflict cycle and damage the relationship.

If a child or young person in your care is behaving in a challenging way, it’s vital that you don’t mirror their behaviour by becoming aggressive yourself or by raising your voice. Use neutral body language and speak in a calm, normal voice.

If you start to feel your own anger escalate, take a break from the conflict. Say something like ‘I’m getting really angry. I’m going to sit down in the other room until we have both calmed down and then we will talk.’ In this quiet space, prepare what you’re going to say, including the words you’ll use. Keep it simple and short – this can encourage your child to listen to you.

Active listening lets the child or young person in your care know they matter to you

Active listening sends a message that you’re available and interested in what a child or young person is thinking, feeling and doing. By taking the time to listen, you’ll also learn and understand more about what’s going on in their life. 

When listening, give your full attention – put the phone away, turn off the TV or shut down the computer. Give listening signals such as nodding your head or saying ‘I see’, or ‘That must have been scary/tricky/great …’. Keep your focus on what the child or young person is saying rather than thinking about what you’ll say next.

If conflict escalates into violent behaviour, you must clearly communicate that it’s not okay

Conflict and violence are not the same things. Violent behaviour such as damaging property, yelling or swearing excessively, hitting or making threats to harm something or someone are not acceptable. If this happens, you must make it clear to the child or young person that they have crossed the line. Let them know that you’re willing and available to listen once they have calmed down.

Staying calm and actively listening will not only defuse a conflict will strengthen your relationship and can help reduce the number of conflicts due to misunderstandings. By teaching and modelling skills to deal with strong emotion and conflict, you will help the child or young person learn healthier responses.

It’s only human to get it wrong sometimes, especially if you’re tired or a child or young person in your care is pushing the boundaries. Go easy on yourself and don’t expect to be perfect – you’re human too. If you do lose your cool, say ‘sorry’ and try again when you’re feeling calmer.

Are you ready to become a foster carer? We will support you all the way. 

Author: Challenge Community Services

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About Challenge Community Services

Over 60 years ago we were a small band of parents and friends seeking support services for our children with disabilities. Today, Challenge has grown to be one of the largest community support services in New South Wales. We provide support to over 2500 people from Albury to Lismore, Sydney, Dubbo, Tamworth and beyond. With over 700 staff, 85 of which have a disability, we strive to comply with and exceed all standards required under State and Federal Acts.
In the spirit of Reconciliation, Challenge Community Services acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of this country, and their connection to land, water and community. We pay our respect to them, their cultures and customs, and to Elders both past and present.
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