How A Parent Can Better Understand Their Child’s Challenging Behaviour

Parenting is hugely rewarding and has moments of significant challenges. Puzzling is another word that jumps to mind when dear, sweet Ava or Adam experience a tantrum time-bomb out of the blue.

In the ‘old days,’ a child having tantrums was labelled as a naughty or disruptive child and was punished, sometimes quite harshly. Nowadays, we are far more understanding that a tantrum is a manifestation of a more profound need which needs to be calmly resolved. The need has not been seen or understood by the parent, and the child reaches their limit and then has an emotional breakdown.

Behavioural specialist, Sandi Phoenix, has created a guide for parents, and educators, called Sandi’s Phoenix Cups approach to guide behaviour.  This beneficial compilation succinctly describes different needs which all children have, in varying combinations. For ease of explanation, the different needs are labelled ‘Cups’.

Sandi explains, “You can’t pour from an empty cup and when…raising children…these little people can really ’empty your cups’. But what if your children have cups too…?” They don’t have the eloquence and IQ of an adult to verbalise or even understand their feelings.  Sometimes they are also not given the time or respect to allow them to try to verbalise their feelings or frustrations.


  • Safety Cup – This includes factors of sleep, being risk-averse, eating, health, fitness and a general sense of welfare (body and mind) and happiness.
  • Love and Connection Cup – This includes the need to be accepted into a group and being made to feel welcome and wanted. This could be family, friends, community and teachers. Physical connection (like hugs) falls under this.
  • Mastery Cup – This covers the control of one’s environment, discovering new ways of doing things (especially if its something your peers are interested in) and developing a strong basis of confidence and the ability to adventure further than before.
  • Freedom Cup – This covers the tricky freedom card for children. Severely controlled (small cup) discipline will break the child, inconsistent discipline will cause anxiety and frustration and discipline delivered with violent words or in a threatening tone will develop fear and lack of self-esteem. On the other end of the scale, zero discipline (large cup) removes structure from a child’s life which creates anxiety, inappropriate behaviour and then confusion as to why society is not accepting them.
  • Fun Cup – This means to play, plain and simple. It is a vital part of a child’s upbringing, and it is becoming harder and harder for kids to find playtime with their growing commitments from a young age.

The different combinations of these cups at various stages of a child’s life, and with varying recipes per individual, is what is driven by each child’s unique needs.

Back to the little one, if they are going through a phase of clingy behaviour, separation anxiety and fussy eating, then the recipe at that time might be:

  • large Love Cup
  • large Connection Cup
  • large Safety Cup
  • small Freedom Cup

What if your little one is running recklessly and almost frenzied, not taking directions and is consciously fighting against guidance. They may have a:

  • large Freedom cup
  • large Fun cup

They will be missing the taught need for safety and will not have developed an appreciation for the comfort found in a deep, respectful connection with their parents. The latter is developed through one-on-one play with a parent whilst being educated by that parent on the need to respect each other’s rights within the play that is happening.

We hope this is a brief look into potential drivers behind behaviour opens your understanding to seeking the needs behind your child’s behaviour AND the needs required of you to address that behaviour.

We are here to help as early childhood educators and as professionals who have enormous experience with children and their various behaviour patterns.  Please contact us for assistance and guidance if you are struggling to get to grips with your child’s behaviour. We are passionate about helping children building warm, secure, respectful relationships. And to have varying levels of involvement in play, thereby allowing them to be the best that they can be.

Related Tag: Early Childhood Learning