There is an episode of ‘Charlie and Lola’ originating from the book by the amazingly talented Lauren Child called ‘I Can Do Anything That’s Everything All on My Own’. It depicts the stage when most little people twig that everything is being done to or for them and in response start to exert a degree of stubborn independence. Like Lola, L has wanted to be in control from…well birth really. She was 6 weeks early. Due date? No, no, no. I decide MY birthday thank you very much and I’m ready now!!! The ‘stubborn independence and resulting tantrum if not satisfied’ phase shows no signs of ending any time soon.
Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) is an anxiety driven avoidance of any demands (hence pathological) both real or perceived, placed on the individual outside of their control. This can range from getting dressed to using the toilet and everything in-between be it a ‘nice’ demand such as accepting a favourite food to a less attractive one such as tidying up a messy bedroom. However if we flip PDA on its head, and a PDA’er wants to do something of their own volition then there is nothing you can do to stop, prevent or reduce their need to carry it out. They are extremely impulsive and determined when they want to be!
L has to be in control of everything. From choosing the outfit she will wear for the day to opening every door herself to turning each and every page in her bedtime books. If someone else has the audacity to do it for her first then a meltdown will ensue in under 1/10 of a second. As a consequence we have many flash points throughout the course of a day. On a ‘bad day’ when behaviours and anxiety are at their peak life resembles the ‘Whac-A-Mole’ game you find at seaside arcades. On a ‘good day’ when life is calmer flash points can be extinguished by distraction, concealment, negotiation, pep talks, visuals, games or humour.
Like Lola, L has wanted to pour her own drinks for quite a few years now. She loves pink milk. I want her to have independence and am happy for her to try, the odd spill, waste or three cups used to make one drink doesn’t bother me (anymore). But when L is in a certain type of mood, the impulsive, focused at all costs, red mist mood she will want to pour out the whole bottle of milk until it is overflowing. She wants to tip all the squash concentrate into a cup and grip it with deadly steel if it is attempted to be taken away or moderated. It isn’t a drink anymore it is a power struggle and she is going to be the only winner. As soon as something seems to matter to me she will pick up on it and push even harder to prevent me ‘winning’. Traditional parenting methods might include disciplining the child with a firm ‘stop’ or ‘no’ or the item could be banned or the child could be given a time out for misbehaving.
These strategies do not work with PDA children.
Shouting or telling them not to do something will make them shout louder, lash out or break down in fear due to the raised noise and emotion levels. Banning the item will lead to negotiations of Brexit proportions continuing for hours, days or months on end and become a fixation from eyes open until they close. Time outs are met with violence, shouting or fear from a child with acute separation anxiety that you can no longer be seen or are close enough to them.
I’ve learnt that when raising a PDA child every behaviour or action is not always the child acting up for the fun of it. Strategies may seem controversial from the outside looking in as they allow the child to feature more evenly in the parent/child power balance. But there is a bigger picture. Anxiety, fear, anger and a complex wiring system in the brain all contribute to resulting behaviours. I’ve learnt a few strategies for using at home which may be L specific but have worked and if they help anyone else will be worth sharing.
Never try and win
Autistic people and some neurotypical’s with a vicious competitive streak cannot accept losing. By all means put on a fake nail-biting chase to a photo finish but always let the PDA’er win. Youre the adult its FINE to come second. Honestly. This will build up their confidence in the privacy of their own home and hopefully allow them to eventually accept losing in the outside world. If they are have a good day then tolerance levels can be stretched gradually but be warned! (Disclaimer as I parent an only child I cannot predict how this will pan out with siblings!)
Assume the PDA’er wants to do everything first and always hold back allowing them the split second to take control first. This takes practice as it is instinctive and reflexive to do things that you have either been doing for the child since they were a baby or which are part of social codes and conventions such as politely opening the door for someone first.
Allow non harmful episodes to play out
We have a time old battle where L wants to eat snacks or sweets just before a meal and is like a dog with a bone until she gets what she has set her sights on. She climbs up cupboards, bites, scratches and growls until she exhausts herself there is no placating her. ‘Be tougher’ Im told by others but for me this doesn’t work. What I’ve found does work is stepping away, withdrawing attention and allowing the incident to play out. The shock of the dropped bottle or spillage is messy and annoying but it is the thing that makes the PDA’er stop. L likes to see the physical cause and effect and will then allow part of her rational brain to kick in and deduce that what she has just done wasn’t such a good idea. If anything is unsafe or a threat to yours or others safety this is not appropriate but for drinks, paint, food – fine
Hide anything meaningful. Well
I’ve learnt to attach little sentimentality to objects since having L as they tend to get stolen, graffitied or broke. Although it sounds extreme, if you have things that are truly truly special and hard to replace hide them so you can enjoy them to yourself. When I say hide I don’t mean in a drawer under your bed or in the back of a cupboard. Too easy! I hide things in the loft, inside bags in other bags high up or at my parents. This isn’t ideal but sometimes I just want to use an expensive notepad all to myself without having to share.
Always use humour to try and reset the atmosphere. A well timed burp or fart. A bit of slapstick. A fake parental injury can work wonders.
I’ve found that these have helped reduce the amount of red mist moments although on some days as I said earlier, NOTHING will work and I’m still on the lookout for ideas to use then so please send me any!
For more concise strategies from the proper professionals please visit these links;
This post has been really difficult to write because it was initially meant to be a positive, happy post but turned into more of an explanation post on the difficulties of PDA. PDA is difficult but I have written quite a few posts on the difficulties and wanted to go out on a high over the Summer and discuss something fun but it didn’t quite flow.
Much like life with a PDA-er!
I am mindful that summer is here NOW and I wont have time to do anything let alone write a blog post so I began to put pressure on myself to make it count and do a ‘good one’ which has been counter productive!
So this week whilst I’ve been trying to write I have also been trying to do too much in preparation for the school holidays and my own anxiety levels have shot up. I’ve had a very real insight into how someone with high functioning, perfectionist tendencies may operate and have been reminded of the many times at university where I would sit to begin an essay or project and procrastinate endlessly whilst trying to write something amazing, self berate, then panic that I would miss the deadline.
The whole point of the blog is to be enjoyable for me and therapeutic but I have began to over analyse everything I write and have either thought ‘that sounds so pretentious’ or ‘will anyone actually want to read this anyway!?’ It has sent me off on a downward spiral culminating with unhelpful thoughts that are buried deep in my sub-conscious that I occasionally allow to bubble up when I’m tired or low whispering ‘perhaps its not autism. Perhaps its just YOU’. So today I am just letting it go because the deadline IS here and I have done the best I can under the circumstances. It’s a bit waffly and shorter than I would have liked and i dont think i have done justice to PDA strategies so may need to revisit at some point but I did it and I am now going to concentrate on the most important thing. Bringing my own anxiety levels down before I collect L and begin the adventure which is Summer 2018.
If you haven’t been put off yet and are still reading I will be posting on Instagram over the summer @pdabubble – the summer will be tough but one things for certain it wont be boring!