Parenting as a PDAer

Being a parent when you identify as PDA yourself can present some unique challenges which may benefit from some unique approaches. These are some examples provided by PDA parents of PDA children …

Scenario: Feeling triggered by their demands (pass this, do that etc).

Approach: Reminding myself that doing it themselves is an anxiety-inducing demand to them and issuing demands makes them feel safe/in control. Graciously obliging as often as possible/being honest with them about how I experience it as a demand too.

Benefit: Recognising that I do this myself sometimes and being able to empathise and reach a shared understanding.

Scenario: Getting sick and tired of the demand of role play as a means of making demands manageable for my child.

Approach: Weaving it into everyday life in manageable ways works better for us than setting limits on when I’m able to do it – this way they are less controlling about it, which makes it more fun for me. We spend large portions of our days pretending to be characters from Harry Potter – demands when made in character are easier for them to manage.

Benefit: The happier they are, the less they need the role play so it’s a win-win.

Scenario: They hate sharing me and always have done; don’t like me talking to other people … even family members and try to dominate/control conversations/insist on quiet when it gets too much. This totally interferes with my own masterful masking!

Approach: Using Ross Greene’s collaborative problem solving approach to help them slowly get better at accepting this rather than just becoming a total hermit which is tempting but not good for any of us.

Benefit: Recognising and respecting their need for control and not over-exposing them, setting them up for success meets both our needs. Accepting there have been periods when we have done less, before we can do more again.

Scenario: Dealing with angry outbursts when they hurt themselves and wanting to comfort them/make it better.

Approach: Paying little attention or jokingly berating the object they’ve hurt themselves on.

Benefit: Deflects from what I think is their hurt sense of control the pain is causing. The more I’ve done this recently, the more able they are to not start yelling ‘don’t look at me!’ when they fall over.

Scenario: Getting all the children dressed in the morning or ready for bed.

Approach: Making it a game/competition – between siblings if they can both manage this, or with an inanimate object or role play character.

Benefit: What needs to happen happens with less stress all round.

Scenario: Not getting things right in the moment (my perfectionist tendencies!).

Approach: Forgiving myself and asking for their forgiveness too.

Benefit: They learn that no one’s perfect and we all make mistakes. I have never forced them to apologise for anything but they are able to do so beautifully, in context and with meaning.

Scenario: Encouraging my children to be independent.

Approach: Being too busy to do things for the children can really inspire them to be independent, as can being bad at stuff. If your children think you’re too incompetent to do the things they want you to do then they’ll try to do them themselves.

Benefit: Good for when you know they can do something but it’s just avoidance, rather than times they’re really struggling or lack the skills.

Scenario: Feeling like other parents expect me to ‘control’ my child in ways I disagree with feels like an intolerable demand to me.

Approach: Reminding myself I’m playing the long-game here and while it can be harder right now, trusting that it will pay off.

Benefit: I am beginning to see the benefits; they are calmer and happier for my non-confrontational approach which might work with other kids but definitely not mine!

Scenario: Feeling pressure to disclose their autism and PDA diagnoses to them because conventional wisdom is that autism diagnoses should always be fully disclosed to children.

Approach: Reminding myself that PDA is a distinct profile, and that my hunches that my child panics if labelled and actively rejects them have proved 100% accurate every time I’ve gently tested out suggesting things to them. Continue to talk about neurodivergent traits (such as PDA avoidance) when their in the mood, referencing myself, without forcing them to identify.

Benefit: My child has a “pocket atlas” of neurodivergency to refer to in their own time.

Scenario: My own expectations for the PDAers in my life.

Approach: Getting out of the way, and confronting my expectations. No pressures no demands is a challenging parenting style.

Benefit: My family is peaceful with meltdowns minimised.

Scenario: Feeling like we’re out of synch with others around us.

Approach: Seeking out more like-minded folk; reminding myself we might be surrounded by more others than we realise who are also masking.

Benefit: Feeling more positive about just being who and how we are.

Scenario: Feeling like a parenting failure because we are socially isolated and our child has no friends.

Approach: Remembering that PDA people may have different social needs from neurotypicals, and that there’s nothing wrong with being pretty much total hermits.

Benefit: Accepting and embracing the lower demand life we have with fewer people in it (for example, less anxiety about the state of our house for visitors).

Scenario: Needing time alone in order to recharge and cope with demands (particularly challenging because I’m an introvert and we home educate so they’re not off at school for hours of every week).

Approach: Having other reliable adults in our lives and including them in understanding our child.

Benefit: They are happy to spend time with Dad, Granny, family friends, forest school, dance class, piano teacher, drama teacher etc who have all been helped to understand how she ticks – rarely with specific mention of PDA but just gentle nudges about what works.

Scenario: Obsessions which can make me feel uncomfortable because I feel like they should move on or are spending too much time on them (my own need for control!).

Approach: Letting go. E.g. allowing the obsessive watching of “Paw Patrol” gave way to obsessive watching of sophisticated documentaries about ancient Egypt and now TV is just another resource, no biggie.

Benefit: We’re all happier – it’s a virtuous circle. I worked hard on myself to become genuinely not disapproving (pretending doesn’t work) and they knows that; I join them in their interests and so much great learning comes from it.

Scenario: Their finding reasons not to do things makes me feel out of control.

Approach: It’s really clear to me that when they start saying their arms have stopped working or start talking nonsense, demands have got too much so I lean into it often with humour which diffuses it and we come back to whatever it is later when it’s more manageable.

Benefit: Rather than being baffled, as I was a bit by this before discovering PDA, I understand that it’s a form of communication.

Scenario: Feeling like we need to do lots of activities at the weekend.

Approach: Using weekends to recover from the week, and all going off and doing our own stuff.

Benefit: Fewer demands all around and everyone gets to recharge with less expectations.

Scenario: Battles for control – sometimes we both need to be in control and can clash.

Approach: Reminding myself I’m the adult and have more experience of letting go and doing so as much as possible. Apologising when I don’t and acknowledging that we both behaved like that because we wanted to feel safe.

Benefit: Hopefully modelling some self-reflection.

Scenario: Feeling like we need to be ‘on it’ all the time.

Approach: Our ability to do things changes all the time, there’s no point pushing when you’re struggling, so instead we do less at these times and know that things will get easier soon and then we can do more. It’s important to pace yourselves.

Benefit: Understanding that our capacity ebbs and flows is important for our own and our children’s mental wellbeing.

Scenario: Feeling guilty and like a failure if I have an angry outburst at my child.

Approach: Apologising to my child and explaining that I still love them; it was just that I got overloaded and telling them I’ll keep on trying to spot when I’m getting overloaded to take myself into quiet space before I explode.

Benefit: This is a good model for them to process their own emotions, plus my maternal concern here helps me self-regulate for my own benefit too.

Scenario: Trying hard to meet neurotypical expectations and pushing too many demands on our children and creating more demands for ourselves in the process – for example, all eating meals together at the table.

Approach: Letting go of expectations – I’ve learnt to stop worrying about what the kids eat. I make them food I know they’ll eat, put it in front of them and leave them to it. Getting ready made meals or takeaway is a valid demand avoidance tactic to making meals. Or having snacks as a meal.

Benefit: This keeps things calm for all of us, they might eat in their rooms or whilst watching TV but it also means I can eat my food in another area in peace and have some uninterrupted me time. I recommend using your phone and headphones to watch TV while eating too. If you can save energy in one area it means you have more energy for more important things. It also cuts down on dishes to wash too.

Scenario: My and their moods can change abruptly. I feel guilty about this but I don’t think they experience guilt about it.

Approach: Whether it’s them or me – going with the flow, trusting that it will change and checking to see what is likely to be causing it.

Benefit: This reduces the guilt for me and helps to stop either of us getting too entrenched in whatever mood it is.

These are some other thoughts about parenting as a PDAer, shared in the book PDA by PDAers (published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers) …

Laura: I am in the process of writing up how-tos as well as family expectations/house rules regarding things that need to be done for us all to be happy and healthy. When we all know the actual expectations of each other we have stopped ‘biting each other’s heads off’ so much (pg 315).

Riko: I find it hard as a PDAer to parent PDA kids … It’s very difficult relinquishing control of tasks and activities in order to make it easier for the kids to handle … Managing my kids’ demand avoidance alongside my own is an exhausting, never-ending task … In some ways I understand my kids on a level most probably don’t … There are times though when I just can’t fathom my kids or when I don’t have the strength to consider the feelings behind their behaviours … We have a lot of ups and downs but I think overall we get each other and are working on getting on with each other. It’s a work in progress and in some ways it will always be an exhausting uphill battle, but we are all trying our hardest to overcome our demand avoidance. One day at a time. (pg 325).

Sally Cat: It is similar to the person-centred counselling ethos … this places the client (in this context, the child) as the expert and the counsellor (here substitute parent) as an unfailingly warm/positive, non-judgemental facilitator who does not direct the client/child but encourages them to find their own way. (pg 319).

Heidi: Some of those knee-jerk responses to certain things will prompt the instilled response that was projected onto me, but I’m mindful and a work in progress so I am able to backpedal and learn from each ‘slip’ to repeating bad habits. It’s hard … very hard to take a new approach, especially when it’s not widely accepted or tolerated …. (pg 322).

Sally Cat: As a PDA parent of a PDA 6 year old daughter I find I get overloaded very quickly … trying to stay focused on what SHE wants me to focus on is draining. Very draining. I need a lot of quiet time. Now I understand why I need this, I feel less guilty about it …. I think it’s important to admit to our children when we’re upset. They’re going to sense it anyway and likely blame themselves if you don’t explain the reasons. (pg 324).

Thank you to Sally Cat’s PDA page for allowing us to share this graphic

These blog posts may also be helpful:

Kristy Forbes: Overcoming my need for control when parenting with PDA

Riko’s blog: Tips for parenting your PDA child and More tips for parenting your PDA child

Different NOT Deficient (Jo Richardson Au): Raising a PDA child when you are PDA yourself