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Dealing with challenging behaviour

A person’s behaviour can be defined as “challenging” if it puts them or those around them, (such as their carer), at risk or leads to poorer quality of life. It can also impact on their ability to join in everyday activities. Challenging behaviour can include aggression, self-harm, destructiveness and disruptiveness.

Challenging behaviour is often seen in people with conditions that affect communication and the brain, such as learning disabilities or dementia.

Communication is the main way we interact and express our needs, likes and dislikes. If communication is a problem then it can be very frustrating for the person involved and may result in challenging behaviour. If this behaviour leads to a desired outcome, it may be repeated again and again.

Carer's tip from Netbuddy

"When faced with someone who is aggressive and shouting, keep your face neutral and lower the volume and pitch of your own voice. Nine times out of ten, they will quieten down to hear what you are saying".

Visit Netbuddy to read more carers' tips like this.

What can you do to help?

As a carer, try to understand why the person you look after is behaving in this way. For example, they might feel anxious or bored, or in pain.

If you can recognise the early warning signs, you may be able to prevent behavioural outbursts. For example, if being in a large group of people makes the person you care for feel anxious and makes them become agitated, you could arrange for them to be in a smaller group or have one-to-one support.

Some people find that a distraction can focus a person’s energies elsewhere and prevent them from displaying challenging behaviour.

The person you care for might behave in a challenging way to get your attention. If this is the case, consider not responding directly to their behaviour – although you shouldn't ignore them completely. However, if their behaviour puts them or someone else at risk, you'll need to intervene as calmly as possible.

Professional help

If you’re finding it hard to cope with the behaviour of the person you look after, you can ask your GP to refer you to a specialist with knowledge of challenging behaviour. You will usually be asked to keep a record of the person’s behaviour to see if there are any patterns. The specialist will want to know what situations or people trigger the behaviour, what the early warning signs are, and what happens after the event.

A specialist will try to find out what the person is aiming for in their challenging behaviour. Do they crave one-to-one attention, or do they want to be removed from a situation they find difficult? If a reason for the behaviour can be established then their needs could be met in an alternative way in order to prevent them resorting to challenging behaviour.

Any techniques you try must be followed consistently by all those involved in the care of the person you look after. If everyone does this, it will help the individual involved to understand what's expected of them.

Help for carers

If you care for someone who displays challenging behaviour and you find it difficult to cope, support is available.

Many organisations for people with learning disabilities or dementia have strategies for coping with challenging behaviour. Some of these organisations also provide opportunities for carers to connect with other people in a similar situation. For example, through family linking schemes. See External links for details of organisations that may be able to help.

Sharing your experiences, for example with a local carers’ group, can be a good way of getting support. Contact the Carers Direct helpline on 0300 123 1053 or through our online enquiry service, or use our postcode search to find your nearest carers support group.

Respite care for the person you look after enables you to take a break from your caring responsibilities. It’s one of the services that your local authority can provide, following a community care assessment for the person you care for, or a carer’s assessment for you. See our pages on Carers assessments for more information.

Friends and family members can also be an important source of practical and emotional support.


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Page last reviewed: 09/05/2012

Next review due: 09/05/2014

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