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How to respond to challenging behaviours

Updated: Jan 12

In my work with parents over the years, they frequently ask me how they are meant to respond to their children’s challenging behaviours. Many parents who come to me want to raise their children in peaceful, respectful homes yet they aren’t always certain of how to go about doing so – often because this is not what their own upbringing was like!

What I have discovered is that although it might seem helpful to have answers on how to respond to each and every scenario you might find yourself in with your children, it’s actually much more useful to have an overarching strategy that you can implement time and again.

So, I’ve created a five-step system called the PEACE Method that can be used for any conflict or difficulty in your family, or other relationships for that matter! The five steps are Pause, Empathise, Assess, Create, and Evaluate. Using these steps as described below will help you respond to your children in ways that feel better for you and feel better for your child!

Before I explain further, it’s important to understand that most of our behaviours are dictated by the unconscious part of our brain, a bit as if we are running on automatic pilot.

This can be great for things like driving a car as it keeps us from being constantly overwhelmed (think back to what it was like when you were a new driver!) but in other areas of our lives, it’s best to be less on automatic and more in control of our actions. And sometimes we need more than a desire to do things differently – we need concrete tools!

So, without further ado…the PEACE Method!

When we are ruled by our strong emotions, we are more likely to ‘mess up’ and do something that we're not proud of. Our immediate reactions have the potential to escalate the situation, lead to disconnection in the relationship or trigger a sense of shame or fear in our child.

PAUSE. The first thing we want to do is create space, a literal pause between our initial feelings and our actions. In the moment something has triggered an emotional response in you (like your pre-schooler hitting the baby, or your teenager speaking rudely to you), your first instinct is to act. Your brain has detected a threat which tells you to either fight, flee, or freeze. When emotions such as anger, fear, or anxiety are felt in the body, it can be very easy for the brain to take control.

In some situations, this is great, like if you avoid a car accident because you slam on the brakes in fear, keeping you from hitting the car in front of you. Very useful! But sometimes our automatic reactions and resulting behaviours are not as helpful and can even be harmful.

When we are ruled by our strong emotions, we are more likely to ‘mess up’ and do something that we're not proud of. Our immediate reactions have the potential to escalate the situation, lead to disconnection in the relationship or trigger a sense of shame or fear in our child.

Quickly reacting from emotion can backfire in many ways so it’s important to PAUSE before you act. In some situations, this pause is going to be extremely quick because you just don't have time, like when your child is about to throw something heavy across the room, for example. However, you can take time to pause in most situations. In many cases, the pause is simply accomplished with a deep exhale, as if blowing up a big balloon.

In situations where there is more time, the pause might be taking two or three deep exhales instead of just one. It might be counting backwards from ten to zero. It might even mean leaving the room or taking yourself on a little timeout! Ultimately, the idea is to put space in between the trigger and the response. And once we’ve done that, we are much more likely to be able to do the next step. EMPATHISE. Once we have paused for a moment, our body will likely be calmer, and the part of the brain that allows us to empathise (the frontal cortex) can work much better than when we are stuck in strong emotions.

Interestingly, this does not have to be visible to anybody else, but it could be. It might be saying something to your child like, “Oh wow, you're really upset,” as you look them gently in the eye with your hand resting on their arm. Or it might simply be that you just FEEL empathetic, and think to yourself, “My poor kid, they are really struggling right now.”

From this place you will be more able to see your child’s difficult behaviour simply as communicating a need they have rather than labelling them as naughty, selfish, impatient, etc., or their behaviour as unacceptable.

Imagine then how different your response will be coming from this place, rather than when you are fuming and thinking, “Good grief, what is wrong with them? This is the last thing I need after the day I’ve had!”

We can even take this a step further, and in addition to having some empathy for your child, you can also empathise with yourself. A few kind words from you to YOU can truly help!

So, you’ve Paused and Empathised, perhaps in just a matter of moments, or possibly for longer, and now it’s time for the next step. ASSESS. Again, this step can be very quick, or it could take you some time to think through. It all depends on the immediacy of the problem at hand (again, if someone is about to get hurt, for example, you'll have to act more quickly than in other situations) but what you're assessing is what the heck is going on with your child! What has triggered this behaviour?

And here is where I'd like to state what might be a paradigm shift for some of you. In the words of Dr Ross Greene, "Kids do well when they can." Really take that in! Children do not want to be hurtful. They don't want to do poorly in school. They don't want to make you angry. These challenging behaviours are occurring because there is a need that isn't being met or an expectation that is inappropriate.

If we go into things with that assumption, then the solution involves first figuring out what problem the child has that is causing them to behave in this undesirable way. It might be that you realise your child hasn't eaten and is probably hungry. Or it could be someone has just taken a toy they were playing with, and they didn’t like it!

Maybe there is something bigger going on like a bully at school, or stress over an exam. Take a moment (or an hour, or a month...) to assess the situation and see if you can figure out what's going on. If you have an older child, this might include having a talk about things when they are ready to. Kids are their own best problem solvers! Once you have an idea of what the real problem is, what lies underneath the behaviour, you are ready for the C of the PEACE Method, Create. CREATE. This is where we decide how to respond to the situation in front of us. Because we have gone through the other three steps, we can now create a plan of action with intention.

And one that is far more likely to be helpful than if we started with this step and simply reacted as a result of our emotion or a conditioned response. Hopefully it goes without saying that after we figure out what we are going to do, then we actually DO it, right?

It could be as simple as getting your child some food or giving them a hug or some focussed attention. Some plans you create could be much more involved and need to be implemented over time if the circumstances are more complex. It might be that the plan you create is to google for professional help!

No matter what you come up with, if you create your plan of action from a calm, empathetic space, it is going to have much better results (both in the short term and the long term). EVALUATE. Afterwards, we want to evaluate how things went. Regularly taking time to evaluate things is how we grow consciously in our parenting, and hopefully it will help us avoid having the same problems repeatedly. Did we get it ‘right’ this time? Did we respond in a way that worked? Have we gotten to the root of the problem?

Maybe you can give yourself a pat on the back because things worked out so well, AND you kept your calm the whole time even though it was difficult! Or, on reflection, you might realise you were a bit off in your assessment of the situation, or perhaps just didn’t take long enough to Pause and ended up being more reactive than you wished you had been.

Just be warned that as you evaluate things you might not have any idea WHY things didn’t work out well, you just know they didn’t! And that’s okay too. Relationships are complicated and humans are complex.

Keep coming back to it and keep experimenting. It can take time and some trial and error to figure things out. For example, I learned over time that my two boys are quite different. As it turns out, one likes physical touch to help him calm down and the other needs his space! Now, I didn't get that right to begin with. I assumed that everyone is like me, and they want closeness when they're feeling out of sorts (interesting assumption, right?) Well, that’s NOT the case for my oldest son. I used to try to cuddle him or get him to talk to me before he was ready, and it always made things worse!

I finally realised he could calm down more easily when I gave him some space, letting him know I was there for a chat or cuddle when he was ready. Honestly, it was difficult for me because it went against my nature, but this is what attuned parenting is! Being flexible, experimenting, and figuring out what your child needs.

And luckily for me, my younger son loves a big bear hug or a chat when he’s out of sorts! So, there you have it: Pause, Empathise, Assess, Create, and Evaluate! I hope you find the PEACE Method helpful. And remember, as my son reminds me, practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes better. Be gentle with yourself. Keep practicing PEACE and I promise it will get easier and easier!

Anne Cullen, BA, IBCLC Anne Cullen is a coach and parenting specialist who has been supporting and educating children and their parents for nearly 30 years. Her mission is to ensure children grow up feeling safe, secure, and understood (and their parents enjoy the journey!) Anne holds a Bachelor of Arts degree with majors in Sociology/Anthropology; Family Resources; and Education, is certified as a Life Coach, MAP Practitioner, Mindfulness Instructor, and REACH Practitioner with additional training in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy and Collaborative & Proactive Solutions. Learn more about her HERE. Don't Miss A Thing. Our subscribers are the first to know about new courses and special offers. Simply let us know you're interested by emailing us at

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