Children's mental health

Zack’s story

Understanding the impact of behavioural difficulties on children and families

Content warning: The issues raised and experiences shared in this report are upsetting and potentially triggering. They include domestic abuse, violence, racism, extreme emotional distress, and trauma.

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Hayley, Zack, and Sophie are one of the 18 families interviewed by Renaisi and Close-Up Research. Together we wanted to better understand what life is really like for children experiencing distressing behavioural difficulties, and their families.

Images do not depict the families involved


Hayley has two children: Zack (7) and Sophie (13). Hayley volunteers with the Salvation Army and a community group run by Parents and Communities Together. She finds these experiences a “lifeline” because they give her a sense of purpose.

Hayley, Zack and Sophie like to feed the ducks and have lunch in the park together. The three of them also spend a lot of time with Hayley’s mum and dad.

About Zack

Zack has not yet been diagnosed with a behavioural disorder. Hayley says his behaviour has been assessed at Sunshine House, and that he has been identified as being defiant. For the time being his behaviour will continue to be monitored.

Hayley and Sophie describe Zack as being bubbly and energetic. He loves cars and collecting Thomas the Tank Engine trains. He also loves dressing up. However, he can be quick to explode and have full-blown tantrums.

Hayley says, “He is like a switch. You never know when it’s going to flick. My mum describes him like a ticking time bomb.” Sophie speaks about how one minute he can be giving her cuddles, and the next be punching and kicking her.

He can get like really rough. He can go from like minuses to thousands with a click of your fingers. And he can get really harsh... He gets really mad, and he'll go off, and you think he’s gone off to calm down, but he comes back and he’s gone off to get something to whack me with.

Hayley Zack's mum

Zack will often become physically violent. This can include throwing things, pinching, punching, hitting, kicking and biting. Zack’s nan, Kathy, describes his behaviour as “diabolical” and says it can often frighten her.



Hayley is a survivor of domestic abuse, and the family have had to move around a lot. Their current council flat only has two bedrooms, which means Hayley has to sleep in the living room. They store most of their possessions at Hayley’s mum’s house, as the damp and mould ruins everything.

Hayley does not feel safe in their flat. She has witnessed drug runs, experienced several break-in attempts, and caught people urinating on their garden wall. She’s been waiting four years for the council to replace the damaged front-room windows, and to damp-proof the flat.

Hayley first became concerned about Zack’s behaviour when he turned 2. She thinks the lack of stability in the early years of his life might be a contributing factor: “He didn’t know whether he was coming or going.”

Current situation

Zack’s tantrums can be daily or every other day. General triggers can involve being told what to do, wear or eat. It is impossible to get Zack to go to bed at a particular time, and normally Hayley has to wait until he falls asleep from sheer exhaustion, which can be as late as 1am.

Hayley said that Zack can make it quite clear to other children at school that he wants to be left alone, by growling, pushing or screaming. When he was four he was suspended from nursery for pushing over his teacher.

Zack has begun to reflect on his own behaviour. He refers to his “angry head” and questions why he sometimes gets this way.

Hayley has tried different strategies to deal with Zack’s behaviour.

If something doesn't work twice or three times, I don't keep persisting. People say we got to stick with it, you can't just give in. I was like, but if it's not going to work, why keep carrying on doing it? I might as well save myself some stress and time and try something else. And if that works better, I'll do that instead.

Hayley Zack's mum

When Zack is having a tantrum, Hayley avoids eye contact, does not say anything, and sometimes raises her hand as if to create an imaginary wall between them. Sophie agrees that it works better to ignore Zack rather than tell him off, because he wants the attention. However, she acknowledges that often they give into his demands.

Out in public, Hayley feels people expect her to respond and stop the behaviour immediately. She finds it frustrating when members of the public try to intervene, or make comments about her parenting abilities.


Hayley finds Zack’s behaviour draining and stressful. She tries to predict and plan ahead for different scenarios. There are many instances where they have been told to get off a bus or leave a shop because of how Zack is behaving.

It’s stressful. Nine times out of 10, I'm worried about where I'm going to go and what I'm doing, whether it's on a bus trip or train trip... I'm always thinking, is he going to have a kick-off? Can I go a different way so that it’s less likely to happen? So it's always in my head.

Hayley Zack's mum

Since Zack tends to go to sleep very late, Hayley doesn’t have the evening to catch up on life admin and housework, let alone get any “me time”. She tends to “stick to the same crowd” and avoids making new friends because she doesn’t want to have to explain Zack’s behaviour.

Sophie says that Zack’s behaviour can be “stressful, annoying and painful”. She does not get to spend as much time with her mum as she would like. Zack’s behaviour gets in the way of her doing her homework or getting enough sleep, particularly as they can’t close any doors because of the damp. Zack often comes into Sophie’s room to harass and annoy her.

Zack doesn’t get invited to other people’s birthday parties or sleepovers because of his behaviour. Hayley organised a bowling birthday party for Zack and none of his school friends turned up. Zack’s nan also feels that his behaviour gets in the way of her being able to get close to him, or to do fun things with him.

Up until he was 3 I always had the kids... But now with Zack, I just can’t cope with him... I can’t have him during the day for a long period of time because, basically, he doesn’t want to do anything.

Kathy Zack's nan


Hayley has found interactions with Zack’s school to be challenging. She has been asked to attend countless meetings about Zack’s behaviour and feels that staff, including the headteacher, often speak to her as if she is to blame. Zack’s current teacher understands Zack’s needs and how to manage his behaviour, but this is not representative of the whole school.

Ideally Hayley would like Zack to attend a SEN school. She speaks about her own experiences of school, and how her move from a mainstream school to a SEN one meant that she “flew through doors”, passed English and maths, and started doing vocational courses.

Hayley has not found the formal support she has received particularly helpful. Hayley visited the GP several times when she first became concerned about Zack’s behaviour – but was told not to worry. It was only when Hayley was at a stay-and-play session that one of the workers noticed how Zack could get angry quickly, and helped Hayley get a referral to Southwark Family Support.

Hayley is a qualified NVQ-level childcare coordinator who has a lot of experience working with children with severe special needs, yet she has been repeatedly referred to parenting courses. For the most part, these haven’t been helpful as Hayley feels that the facilitators don’t understand what life is actually like for parents.

90% of the support from people is ‘stick Mum on a course’, which is not always helpful.

Hayley Zack's mum

Zack has also received support from CAMHS, which has involved joint sessions with Hayley and attending a sleep clinic. Some of the advice did not take into account their actual circumstances. For example, they suggested leaving Zack in a room on his own until he fell asleep, at a time when they were living in a one-bedroom flat. This would have meant not allowing Sophie to go to bed until Zack fell asleep.

Hayley really values the support she gets from her mum. Sophie stays with her grandparents at least once a week. This means she can get a bit of break from Zack. Sophie also has access to a mentor through a charity called Step Out. Every Thursday they go for dinner or to the park. It is an opportunity to “forget about everything”.

Hayley would like formal support to be more holistic and address some of the wider needs and issues that she believes can help explain some of Zack’s behaviour. This includes an improvement in their living conditions.

The future

Hayley is worried that when Zack goes to secondary school, he will get excluded due to his behaviour, and end up being arrested. Hayley and Sophie are concerned about who he might lash out at as he gets older. If he is violent or aggressive with someone who doesn’t understand him, they might hurt him back.

Download all family's stories

Families shared their experiences of mental health and behavioural difficulties through a series of interviews (in-person and online) and other interactive exercises. Read some of their stories in more depth here.

Read their stories