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Understanding behaviour

  • 0-1 Years
  • 1-5 Years
  • 5-11 Years
  • 11-19 Years
  • SEND
  • Behaviour, emotions and mental health
Two black toddlers playing on a bench in a park.

Your child or young person’s behaviour is an expression of their emotion. How they are feeling will play a big role in their behaviour. All of your child’s behaviour has a purpose. It can help to understand what the purpose is although sometimes this can be difficult to work out.

Your child's behaviour

Children express their emotions through their behaviour. Their age, understanding, past experiences, and personality all contribute to their behaviour.

Behaviour serves as a way to communicate. Understanding what your child is trying to tell you, can take some time and patience. There are various factors that can lead to changes in behaviour, including:

  • changes or transitions, such as starting school
  • family challenges, such as conflict between parents
  • a need for clearer boundaries, structured routines, or more daily activity
  • sensory sensitivities, where certain sounds, smells or situations may overwhelm them

It’s normal to worry about whether certain behaviours are linked to a specific condition. It’s important to remember that there can be other potential causes too. These may include, worries, frustration, tiredness, hunger or physical discomfort. Read more about managing difficult behaviour.

Understanding your child's behaviour

Every behaviour serves a purpose. It is a way of expressing their needs and emotions. Working out the purpose may not always be straightforward.

To help you understand your child’s behaviour, there are somethings you can do.

  • Put yourself in your child’s shoes and try to see things from their perspective. Are they tired, bored or hungry?
  • Keep an eye out for patterns in their behaviour. You can do this by maintaining a behaviour diary. There may be certain times of the day or certain things that may make their behaviour better and worse.
  • Be aware of situations and experiences that trigger your child’s behaviour. Wherever possible, try and avoid these situations or distract them.  

Common behaviours in children

Babies can’t tell you what they need so their behaviour is their only way of communicating with you. For example, they might cry because they are hungry, tired or need their nappy changed. They may also wriggle or pull away from something to express a dislike. This is normal behaviour for babies but it can be frustrating.

Remember to never shout, shake or smack a baby. If you’re struggling with your baby crying read our information on caring for your crying baby - ICON.

At this age your child’s brain is still developing and they don't have the ability to control their emotions. So, they may show difficult and challenging behaviour.

Temper tantrums are common and you may also notice them head banging. Often children display difficult behaviour because they’re tired, hungry, overwhelmed or bored. They need support from an adult to help them make sense of these feelings.

As children get older it becomes easier for them to explain and deal with their feelings. They become more able to behave appropriately in different situations.

As your child grows and develops, they start to explore more of their world. They may want to become more independent and find boundaries more difficult to deal with. This can be challenging as a parent, but it is a normal phase of growing up.  

Around this age your child may become much more challenging, argumentative, or low in mood. Hormone levels can play a big role in your child struggling to manage their emotions. You may find they withdraw from you and become less open about how they are feeling. 

It’s normal for teenagers to push the boundaries and engage in risky behaviours such as drug misuse and alcohol abuse.

Toddler crying with her eyes shut

Difficult behaviour

There are lots of possible causes for difficult behaviour in children. It’s a good idea to try and understand why they are acting the way they are. Difficult behaviour may be a sign that your child is unhappy or scared. Try and help them to find the words to describe their feelings.

If you’re worried about your child’s behaviour, speak to their school or contact us to speak to a health professional in our team.


Need more specific support for your child?

If your child needs more help or has additional needs, you can visit our specific section for extra support.

Behaviour, emotions and mental health for additional needs

Last reviewed: 1 November, 2023

Looking after your own wellbeing

Sometimes the stress of your child’s behaviour can get too much. If you’re with others, ask them to look after your child, whilst you step away for some relief. If you are by yourself, make sure your child is safe, and allow yourself a few moments of peace to feel calmer. It’s important to look after yourself.

Read more about emotional wellbeing for parents and carers.


Who can help

If you have any questions or concerns about your child’s behaviour, emotions or mental health, a health professional in our team will be able to offer advice and support.

You can Call Us on 0300 029 50 50 or Text Us on 07520 649887 to start a conversation.

Open Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm (excluding bank holidays).

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