Challenging Behaviours
Feb 22, 2013 by


Myth: People with Down syndrome are happy and affectionate.

Children with Down syndrome experience the same range of emotions as any other human being. Don’t believe me, ask any parent. Even the most laid back and easiest of personalities have their ‘moments’ and it can get ugly. Exactly the same as for anybody. In fact, if you don’t see a young child misbehave, throw a tantrum or get sulky once in a while you should worry.


This myth has come from the fact that you do see a number of people with Down syndrome who are “smilers” and who continue to indiscriminately use hugging and other acts of affection. However, I know teenagers with Down syndrome who smile constantly, hug freely and then go home and slam doors and fight with siblings.


Myth: A child with Down syndrome who has difficult behavior is not being disciplined at home. This is a tricky one because there are two issues at play. Firstly, not all parents are aware of behavioral principles and secondly, all children have different challenges and temperaments and thus can be more challenging to discipline.


We tend to discipline in the same way that our parents did and often we don’t question the strategies we use. It is not until they don’t work for us or we find that progress is slow that we start to look around. It may be that we find that the methods we use are sound but need ‘tweaked a bit’ to make a better fit for an individual child. All parents know that what worked for one child in the family needed a little revision for subsequent children. This is a good thing and shows how parents naturally observe their children and demonstrate flexibility in their approach. That said, I believe all parents would benefit from a parenting class because there are scientific behavioral principles that are very effective for ALL children.

The other issue is that not all children with Down syndrome are the same. Psychologists use a broad categorization of temperaments and 65% of young children were found to be clearly one of these three types: easy, slow to warm, and difficult (Thomas & Chess, 1977). The other 35% are somewhere in between. Temperament type is something that children appear to be born with (can’t be proven, but we see the temperaments from infancy and they do not appear to be learned).


  • ‘Easy’ children adapt to new people and experiences well and have generally positive dispositions. They respond easily to discipline.
  • ‘Slow to warm’ children take longer to adapt and tend to withdraw and have low activity levels. They require longer to show change in disciplining.
  • ‘Difficult’ children respond negatively to changes, and tend to have negative dispositions. They are often described as intense and irritable (sounds like me on a Monday morning.) They present more challenging behaviors and can take quite a while before change is seen when disciplined.



Truth is, this describes most of us at times. These categorizations are used, however, when a person is predominantly one or the other. I have seen more children with Down syndrome that clearly fit one of these three types than I would see in the typically-developing population. I have seen many “easy” children and parenting them is relatively easy (I say relatively because parenting is NEVER easy.) I have also seen many “difficult” children and parenting tends to be a bit trickier because there are so many more behaviors to deal with. My point is simply this:


Some children have more difficult behaviors due to their temperament type.


I do not want to encourage comparing scars between parents (“I have a tougher time than you”) because direct comparisons can not be made. A parent with a “difficult child” will find it easier to be an effective parent when they have good support networks, resources and security than a parent who has an “easy child” with none of those things. All things are not equal and that is why we can never judge.

Myth: “I tried that technique and it did not work.” Most of the time, children with Down syndrome will take longer to get the message when disciplined than typically-developing children. Disciplining is about learning and the intellectual disability means that learning is usually a bit slower than for other children. But they DO learn. The behavior principles work very well, they just take a bit longer than for other children. Stick with it!!!! Myth: “I can’t do it.” The worst mistake I believe a parent can ever make is giving in or giving up. All parents feel this way sometimes. When behavior change takes longer we can feel defeated and worn down. Compound this with the constant advocating parents need to do and it is no wonder that parents feel like giving up at times. When you feel this way, don’t judge yourself harshly. Take a break, seek assistance, get support. Get a massage. Then get stuck in again.