Reframing Difficult Behaviours

Are you experiencing difficulties in parenting your child? Would you like to find more effective ways of dealing with difficult behaviour?

Educational consultant Michael Reist makes the argument that difficult children grow up to be interesting adults. He looks at challenging traits in children and considers how these will serve them as adults. For example, an argumentative child has strong verbal communication skills, is passionate, and is intelligent. A disorganized child is more interested in the big picture, a stubborn child is able to set goals and work towards them, a child who doesn’t listen is able to tune out distractions and focus on a single task, and a defiant child is confident enough to stand up to authority figures. These are traits we often encourage or even try to develop in adolescents and young adults. 

In a blog called Embracing Us, the author points out the discrepancy between the ways that we unconsciously treat children, and the ways that we expect children to act. She highlights a number of scenarios where adults may humiliate, embarrass, dismiss, or even bully children when they display some of the traits mentioned above. We want children to be kind, considerate, patient, obedient… but is this how we treat them? Children are not yet capable of responding appropriately all the time, because their brains are still rapidly developing. We know from neuroscience that children learn through imitation. They copy the adults that they see, and because relationships are key for brain development, they copy their attachment figures (mom, dad, grandma – whoever is most important in their lives). Embracing Us author writes, “The idea that children must earn our respect, and are ours to be trained and moulded, and tolerated until they act appropriately, or reach some capricious age, is harmful. It is putting conditions on your relationship. It only serves to push them away, make them fearful, angry, confused, and eventually repeat the same behaviour with those who are smaller, slighter, vulnerable” (December 4, 2016). 

So the question becomes, is there a way to stay connected in relationship with your children when they are acting out with difficult behaviours? At Art as Therapy, we believe that the answer is a resounding “yes!” We are of the opinion that children are much more capable than we may realize. Children naturally want to please, they are hard-wired for positive connection with others, and they are eager to learn and to succeed. We also believe that when children are acting out with difficult behaviors, there is always a reason or a deeper meaning behind their behaviour. Clinical counsellor, educator and writer Deborah MacNamara explains, “It is too often the case that when our children act in ways that defy understanding or are uncivilized, we are quick to focus directly on their behaviour. What gets missed is the child’s attachment needs and emotional issues that drive the most problematic behaviour” (

Along these lines, Michael Reist suggests that difficult children are a mystery to be understood. At Art as Therapy we take the same approach to any “problem behaviour”. We are curious about what the child may be saying through their difficult behaviour, what need they may be trying to satisfy, or what clues it gives about how they understand and experience their world.  

In our experience, we have found that these are some common messages or motivations behind defiant or difficult behaviour: 

  • I want more freedom and control in my life. Consider for a moment the daily routine of a kindergarten child. Age 5 is a time of intense exploration and discovery. It’s the age when children begin to go out into the world on their own, and begin to learn how to manage their emotions when their primary caregiver isn’t there. For some children it’s their first opportunity to experience themselves as separate from anyone else. Yet how many opportunities do they have to express this freedom or to have a sense of control? Do they choose their own clothes to wear? What they will have for lunch? Where they will sit? What they will do when they get home from school? It’s an internal struggle for children as they gain more independence but have limited opportunities to explore and exercise this freedom.

  • I don’t feel listened to or understood. We may unconsciously communicate this to children if we, for example, dismiss a worry or fear by telling them that they have no reason to be scared or nothing to be afraid of. This kind of response does not validate the child’s emotional experience and sends a message that we don’t really understand what they’re communicating, or we’re not taking it seriously.

  • I need more attention. Different ages and stages require more attention from adults. And different children need different amounts of attention. It’s a fact that negative behaviour gets a response from adults. And for a child’s brain, negative attention is better than none.

  • I feel overwhelmed and need help. This is a huge one! So often in the art room, we have found that children refuse tasks they feel that they will not be able to do. And when we explore it further, it’s not that they don’t want to do it, it’s that they aren’t sure where or how to start. When some support is provided and the task is broken down into smaller steps, they are willing to try and often succeed – the pride and positive emotion that accompanies this success is very rewarding for the child and helps to build a sense of capacity along with self esteem.

Ultimately, difficult behaviors are a form of communication if we are able to understand them through this child-focused lens. Chances are that this is a different way of looking at difficult behaviors. One of the key concepts in art therapy is reframing. The idea is that through the therapy process, things can be seen and understood in a new way. Here’s how it works: when clients comes to art therapy, they express what’s on their mind through their artwork, and through conversation with the therapist. This process externalizes thoughts and emotions. The therapist and the artwork can then reflect or mirror thoughts and emotions back to the client. The therapist can hold up the artwork, and the client can take a look at it from a different angle. Maybe they even turn it a bit, see how it looks sideways or upside down. This shifting can allow the client to notice things they may not have seen otherwise, make connections, or gain new insight. 

Here’s a simple art task to try out the concept of reframing. Get a large piece of paper and a drawing utensil (marker, crayon or pastel). With your eyes closed, scribble as hard as you can for 10 seconds. Try to fill the page. When ten seconds is up, set down your drawing utensil. Look at your scribble and see if anything catches your eye or reminds you of something. Develop this section into an image using a different colour. Then, turn your paper upside down. Repeat the same process - what do you see? How does the scribble look from this angle? Develop a section into an image. Check out the photo with this post for an example of the finished product! This simple exercise is a reminder that a shift in perspective can open up creative possibilities. 

At Art as Therapy we believe that difficult behaviours provide opportunities to empower children and build connection. This year, we are committing to listening to children, and empowering them through the art therapy process.

Connect with us on Facebook (Art as Therapy), Instagram (@art_as_therapy), or send us an email ( Stay tuned for our next blog post where we will be using this new perspective on difficult behaviors to share some tips for reducing the power struggle with your child. 

Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, Art Therapist at Art as Therapy


 “Kids are people too…” Embracing Us. December 4, 2016.

MacNamara, Deborah. “Five Things You Might Not Know about Attachment Between Parents and Kids.” 

Reist, Michael. “Difficult Child. Interesting Adult.” December 7, 2016.