The Art of Chill: Parenting with PDA in MindOct 25, 2023
Low-arousal PDA parenting --
When raising children with a Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) profile, it's all about finding that sweet spot between support and independence. A low-demand parenting approach is designed to help lower your child’s anxiety and increase their nervous system regulation - and YOURS. It is an approach that helps us focus on what we can control: our communication, parenting approach and the environment around our child. It allows us to offer connection, regulation and felt-safety opportunities in the nervous system. It reduces escalation and stress responses.
This approach needs you to throw out traditional parenting and embrace a new way of relating to your child, focusing on meeting their sensory, social and communication needs. This approach will allow you to come alongside your child as their ally and gain a deeper understanding of their experiences and perspectives. You can then work more collaboratively, experience deeper connections and transform your lifestyle and environment.
There is no rule book, but there are guidelines that can be a launching point where you get to experiment and create a life that meets your family's unique needs. Slow down, give yourself time and space to experiment and find what works best for you as a family rather than follow rigid rules or recommendations. Tune into what brings greater connection, regulation and felt-safety in your neurodivergent family.
Empathy & Understanding
Your child has an innate drive for freedom - it’s a part of their unique brain wiring. Anything they perceive as infringing on their freedom is a demand and is subconsciously perceived as ‘unsafe’, activating the body's stress response system. Power struggles and coercion are a recipe for disaster for PDA kids. When we view this through a strengths-based, evolutionary or gifts-based lens, we can reframe that your child has an entirely different wired brain and nervous system than a non-PDA child - your child’s brain is wired with a pervasive drive for autonomy, collaboration and self-directed learning. These drives mean your child will experience stress in response to authoritarian, top-down or external pressures. Hence, traditional cultural, parenting and educational practices must be thrown out for progressive collaborative and nervous system-focused approaches.
It’s all about fostering a sense of agency, empowerment, and belonging for your PDA kiddos. Here are some tips for building empathy and understanding:
- Validate your child’s emotions, even when they’re intense. It shows you understand and accept them. You don’t have to agree or need to teach a lesson. Validate, which might sound like, “This is awful, and you really hate school.”
- Work to create a personalized home and school environment that meets sensory needs and minimizes stress triggers. Aim to let go of the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” and do what works!
- Set up the environment to promote breaks and movement throughout the day to allow for regular opportunities for emotional regulation and release of tension. Think sensory bins, lycra swings and cozy or heavy blankets.
- Use language that respects their autonomy, like “I wonder if you’d like to try this” instead of “You need to try this because you need more protein.”
- You can offer choices, even small ones, whenever possible, like what cup to use for dinner. You can easily do this without words by holding up the two cups and letting them point, which decreases how much information they need to process.
- Collaborate with your child on creating routines and structures that work for them rather than imposing pre-set rules. Also, know that those routines and structures need A LOT of flexibility when they play out day-to-day. Plus, they may get boring and need to be refreshed to make them novel.
- Provide plenty of unstructured, free play time to allow for self-directed learning.
- Encourage your child to explore their interests and passion, and provide opportunities for hands-on experiential learning. It can be super helpful to leave materials and resources lying around - also known as strewing - for your child to explore at their leisure - or not!
- Encourage problem-solving and critical thinking skills, “Hmm, that’s a great question; I wonder how we could explore that.”
Your child needs to feel equal to you as your collaborative partner who experiences a high level of autonomy, agency and control. It may be helpful to think about it like you two are private contractors working together. There is no hierarchy.
Fostering that partnership vibe is crucial. You are still a coach and guide, watching the bigger picture and their overall health and well-being, but not as an authoritarian figure.
Here are some tips:
- Use a collaborative and respectful tone of voice when communicating with your child. Prioritize connection over compliance. Your child will likely be more cooperative as you build a stronger bond and trust.
- Involve your child in decision-making and brainstorming solutions together, even if it’s just offering a choice between two options, like what route you will take or what flavour ice cream you will buy for movie night.
- Respect their needs for privacy, personal space and ownership over individual items and how they keep them. For example, allow them to have toys spread across their bedroom carpet if that’s how they like to keep them.
- Acknowledge and validate their feelings, even if you don’t necessarily agree with them. This can sound like, “You hate school and have decided you are not going today.”
- Focus on creating a climate of mutual trust and respect. Be open and honest in your communication without judgment or criticism.
Adaptability is the name of the game when parenting PDA kiddos. There is no rule book, and what works today may not work tomorrow but may again work in six months. This level of adaptability is foreign to many parents, professionals and educators, but it’s possible. Families all over the world are doing it and have done it. It’s about sticking to the basics, attuning to your child’s and your family’s needs, and focusing on connection, regulation, safety and overall well-being. It’s about breaking away from the mould and forging your path, finding your people who will be there when times are tough, celebrating the wins, and living in a way that works rather than the way you are told you should.
Here are a few more tips to add to the mix:
- Allow yourself to remain flexible and open-minded- you must go with the flow.
- Be prepared to pivot and adjust plans to accommodate your child’s needs or your own.
- Encourage your child to express their preferences, communicate their needs, and be willing to adjust or adapt.
- Slow down, and don’t push yourself. PDA parenting requires a marathon mentality, not a sprint.
- Be prepared for stress, escalation and meltdowns. Remember that meltdowns are significant stress responses; some reframe them as panic attacks. Have a personalized de-escalation plan so you can support your child in the best ways for them during these moments.
- Build a supportive community around you - virtual communities, friends, family, and professionals who “get it.” They’ll be your lifeline when things get tough and your cheerleaders in the good times!
- As you recover from survival mode and truly embrace this new way, cultivate a sense of playfulness and humour in your parenting approach. It helps keep things light and less intense. Plus, it builds connection and releases stress!
This fresh approach is all about being adaptable, open and flexible - just like a bendy straw! And speaking of bendy straws, having an assortment of straws available for convenience on the kitchen table is a fantastic way to adapt the environment to support regulation. Plus, who doesn’t love a fun straw?
Making small changes in our approach, communication, and environment can significantly impact the well-being and regulation of PDA children. Embracing a PDA-friendly approach means ensuring the environment works for the child, parent and family rather than vice versa.
"Low arousal approaches... are a good starting point for a partnership based on trust, flexibility, collaboration, careful use of language and balancing demands works best." - PDA Society
DOWNLOAD THE FREE GUIDE:
PARENT TRIGGERS UNLOCKED: FROM TRIGGERS TO CONNECTION IN NEURODIVERGENT PARENTING
This practical guide offers strategies and insights for cultivating compassion, personalized tools, and healing as we navigate the joys and challenges of parenting ND kids in a world not designed for them.