Family counseling professional Roberta Howell, LMFT introduces an alternative parenting style for children with unique nervous systems.
In a previous blog post, I wrote about Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA), a variation of autism that is widely studied in the UK and beginning to gain the attention of researchers in the United States. People with the PDA profile find tasks and demands of everyday life highly anxiety provoking and may have difficulty complying with even simple directives. Often, children with this type of brain live their lives in a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze.
While this may seem extreme to some, for a child with this profile, daily life can seem like an endless series of anxiety-inducing, impossible-to-meet demands. This means that, for parents with this type of child, daily life can seem like an endless series of seemingly ridiculous arguments and angry outbursts that appear to come out of nowhere. This parenting experience can be extremely stressful and lonely.
If this describes your child or your parenting experience, I want to say this first - you are not alone.
So then, how to parent a child with PDA so that they can thrive? This is where the practice of low demand parenting comes in. It puts fewer requirements on the stressed nervous system of child, cuts down on conflict, and allows for a calmer headspace for your child to learn skills to help regulate their own emotions.
Let’s start with the neurobiology of the brain. An anxious brain does not learn coping skills through logical thinking. An anxious brain is preoccupied with survival. Everyone’s nervous system is wired a little differently. Children with the PDA profile tend to have a more anxious brain, right out of the gate. They feel deeply and need more adult assistance to regulate their emotions. This poses a problem for “regular” parenting techniques, which usually involve setting immovable boundaries and fixed rules and schedules. For children with PDA, who get very anxious when even something simple is requested of them, “please brush your teeth before school” might be met with a screaming tantrum. Obviously, doing this many times per day is exhausting, for both parent and child.
Low demand parenting proposes an alternative to this relentless cycle of anxiety and conflict. It suggests you can loosen your grip and still be a good parent. Children with PDA need more autonomy, input, and choices, as well as more information in advance about what will happen in their day. They need to feel heard and understood to feel safe. This takes time, listening, and compromise on the part of the parent. Low demand parenting is less top-down and more collaborative. In addition, it’s important to remember that it might not look like the parenting of your own childhood or the parenting of your peers. It’s a gentler take on the act of raising a human whose nervous system needs a softer landing. And it doesn’t mean you’re giving up and giving in to your child’s every whim.
Low demand parenting isn't defined by a lack of rules or boundaries, but rather working with your child’s brain and particular nervous system. The goal of this parenting style is to help the child remain emotionally regulated during transitions and challenges they encounter. This allows them to access higher brain functions, increasing their ability to cope with bigger and bigger emotions over time. It’s okay, and in fact better, to parent the child you have, not the textbook version of a child in many parenting manuals.
For parents with children who fit the PDA profile, I recommend the book Low Demand Parenting by Amanda Diekman. The book contains many strategies and a great deal of information about children with PDA. There are also website links below for a short summary of the actual “how to” process of low demand parenting.
"Low-demand parenting… says to the kid right in front of you, I see you, just as you are. You are ok here. I love you right here."
– Amanda Diekman
And, really, that’s what every kid needs to know, regardless of how their brain is wired.
By Roberta Howell, LMFT
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