Responding to your children’s emotions
and behaviour

I learned that when my wee one is acting out it’s not to get at me. It’s often because they’re trying to express how they’re feeling and don’t know how to say it. Paying attention to differences in their behaviour and making time to pay attention to them and to listen can help them understand and express their emotions. That, in turn, supports them to have more positive behaviour. Sometimes it’s hard to do this, especially if you’re feeling tired. But in the long run it usually pays off.

Part of being a parent is about responding to children’s emotions and behaviour. That can be quite hard to do as the only adult in the household, especially if you are also trying to cope with your own emotions.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do, whether it’s about schoolwork, staying out late, seeing friends, or the everyday things that come up for all parents as children change and grow up.

When you add the death of a parent or parent break-up into the mix it can cause children a lot of distress. Distress can come out in lots of different ways including sadness, anger, guilt or anxiety. It can affect their behaviour, their moods and other aspects of their lives such as sleeping and eating. Even if children feel relieved at a family break up, perhaps because there’s been domestic abuse, they may feel loss and grief. 

There are things you can do to help your child cope.

Try to stay calm. You may feel frustrated, angry or overwhelmed when your child is behaving in challenging ways. This is natural. But try not to react or argue back when things are like this. Give yourself and your child a bit of time to take the heat out of things before you talk about it.

Being clear about boundaries

When you’re on your own, you don’t have anyone there to back you up. It helps you and your children if you are clear about what to expect.

Having clear rules and boundaries (as long as they are fair and kind) makes children feel safe and secure. Saying ‘no’ doesn’t make you a bad parent. Routines mean that children know what their days are going to be like and what you expect of them and vice versa.

Some useful tips are:

  • Set boundaries. Children need to understand when their behaviour crosses a line 
  • Depending on their age, you could agree ‘house rules’ or a ‘family agreement’ for everyone – yourself included (like not shouting) 
  • This could cover things like screen-time limits, family meals, doing chores and times for getting up and going to bed 
  • This can help children remember what you’ve agreed about behaviour 
  • You can also jointly agree what’s to happen if you or the children don’t stick to the rules 
  • Follow through on consequences 
  • Your child may respond better if you give a warning before the consequence, so they have an opportunity to change their behaviour. After you’ve given the consequence, it’s important to talk with them about what happened and to clear the air 

Useful links

Understanding what’s behind behaviour

Children can be hard going at times. This is because they are learning about what’s expected of them and how to behave as they grow and develop, not because they are ‘bad’.

Your child’s behaviour is them communicating about how they’re feeling. One idea is to think of an iceberg. The behaviour is the tip, and there are likely to be emotions hidden under the surface.

Some tips are:

  • Show your child that you are always there for them (unconditional love) 
  • Show them that you love them 
  • Tell them that you want them to be happy or happier 
  • Help your child understand their feelings. When you are curious about your child’s feelings, this helps them understand and find words to describe them. You can also help them think about the signs that let them know they might be about to blow a fuse or crack up
  • Talk about activities that help them to express their feelings and to calm down. This might be drawing or painting, doing something active like running, jumping or their favourite sport, reading a book, writing a story, baking or making something out of playdough or Lego
  • Note down what you notice about their behaviour over time. Can you link it to certain times of the day (like when they come back from seeing their other parent for example); before or after school; or mealtimes?
  • Let them express their feelings and reassure them that, for example, ‘It’s OK to cry’
  • Make time, and give them the chance to discuss their feelings and actions
  • Define what behaviour is OK and what isn’t
  • Explain why certain behaviour is not OK so they understand. For example, you might say that while it’s OK to feel angry, it’s not OK to hurt other people
  • Make it clear that the behaviour is the problem, and not them. Let them know that it’s OK to feel however they feel, whether that’s sad, angry, worried or something else, and that you can work together to find new ways of managing these feelings

Useful links

  • YoungMinds has useful information about responding to challenging behaviour in its guide for parents.
  • Some children might need extra help to do the best they can in school and at home because they have ‘additional support needs’. This could be for lots of different reasons: difficulty controlling their behaviour; learning or communication difficulties; physical disability or a long-term condition; a difficult family situation; or being bullied.

There are lots of organisations with information, helplines, support services and online communities which can help make things easier for you and your child:

  • Contact has lots of information for parents with disabled children. 
  • Scottish autism can help families with autistic children.
  • If you’re a carer for your child, or if your child is a young carer, Carers Scotland can provide advice and link you to local carers centres.
  • Enquire has a helpline and lots of online advice for parents and young people around additional support for learning to make sure your child’s needs are being met by their school. 
  • If your child needs support because they’ve been affected by domestic abuse, you could contact your local Women’s Aid group to get in touch with a children and young people’s support worker.  
  • If your child has lost a parent or another family member through a bereavement, Cruse Bereavement Care Scotland can help.
  • Winston’s Wish offers support for children after the death of a parent or sibling, through its helpline and online information on speaking to children about death and grief, and activities to help them understand and talk about their feelings.
  • If they’ve been affected by drug and alcohol issues in the family, your child could get support through Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs or other organisations listed on its website.  
  • If they have a family member in prison, they could get support from Families Outside
  • If your child is being bullied, respectme has guidance for adults so you can help them through it, as well as advice for children and young people on what they can do.
  • If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health, the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) has helpful guidance for parents and carers and suggestions of who to contact for support. It also has guidance aimed at children and young people.
  • YoungScot’s AyeFeel is aimed at young people to help them with their wellbeing: it has articles, tips and videos on lots of topics including how to talk about your feelings and cope with stress and conflict.
  • Some young people might just need more opportunities to meet and make friends with other young people who they feel they can be themselves with. There are loads of general youth groups and activities your child could get involved in if you have a search online for clubs in your area.
  • If your child is 13 or over and they think they might be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (or they’re unsure and questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity), it might help them to get involved with a youth group through LGBT Youth Scotland or speak to one of their youth workers for one-to-one support.
  • Black, minority ethnic (BME) children and young people might benefit from the groups, events and support offered by organisations such as Intercultural Youth ScotlandYouth Community Support Agency (YCSA), Young Saheliya, or Sikh Sanjog.
  • Enable Scotland runs ACE Youth groups for 10- to 18-year-olds with learning disabilities in East Dunbartonshire, Fife and Angus.

How to respond to their behaviour

You might be having to deal with children being angry, shouting, damaging things and getting into trouble a lot. Or it may be constant low-level stuff. Some tips, depending on your child, are:

  • Try to stay calm 
  • Reward ‘positive’ behaviour and ignore ‘challenging’ behaviour as much as possible 
  • Use praise. When children are ‘challenging’ it’s often because they’re looking for approval. Find ways, every day, to praise good behaviour 
  • Children like ‘reward’ or ‘star’ charts. It’s easy to make your own. All you need are paper and crayons, or photos of your child’s favourite character. Here are some examples of Reward Charts from the ‘Super Nanny’ website. They’re a simple way to encourage good behaviour and seem to work well for lots of children 
  • If you need to sanction your children, be realistic and never cruel as this creates fear and anxiety, which can last a lifetime. Being realistic means not trying to ground them for a month, for example. That just means that you are grounded too, and you probably won’t be able to stick to that. If you can stick to a less severe and more realistic sanction, you will give your children the message that you mean business. They’ll be less likely to break the rules next time 
  • When it comes to tech, it’s not always a great idea to take the tech away. It’s better to deal with the behaviour than to remove the devices – these are really important to young people 
  • If you know they get annoyed by some of the things that you do and say, can you turn it round into something funny or more positive? Older children can respond well to you saying ‘10 minutes bakers!’ as they get ready for school – a reference to Great British Bake Off. Otherwise it’s easy for them to feel rushed and get snappy instead 
  • See our tips for making things fun as that can help with some of the aspects that make life a challenge, especially on your own, like potty training or getting them to bed 
  • Try to understand your children and their interests. There’s no point in getting annoyed or upset because they want to finish a game of Fortnite or whatever and you’ve got the tea on the table. They might just need a few minutes to finish what they are doing. If you know and understand how their lives work, you may be able to avoid that sort of conflict 
  • Like adults, children need to work on their own coping skills so they can deal with difficult things, and understand and manage their emotions. There are lots of ways you could help your child to do this, and many of the suggestions in our wellbeing pages for parents could also be good for children and young people – like looking after their body and mind, being kind to themselves and getting into habits to help them cope when they feel overwhelmed 

Useful links