Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA)

adelaide australia dynamic parenting neurodivergence neurodivergent neurodiversity neurodiversity community pathological demand avoidance pda Aug 30, 2022

Childhood is the most difficult time in any PDAer’s life as this is the period of life where they have the least freedom, choice and control over their schedule and time. Freedom to manage time is foundational to any PDA child. Even when parents feel like they are not demanding anything of their PDA child, they are because, as parents, we are under pressure. We are "good" parents when our children do well at school, when our children are happily cooperative, and we can go to work. We have our hands tied if our children won't go to school as there is nowhere else for them to go, we can’t work, and our livelihoods are put at risk. I can’t tell you how often I have had to ‘pivot’ my career as a homeschooling (or in and out of schooling) mum who is also the sole breadwinner. 

Our children are a cog in a bigger system that allows parents to work and aims to teach children how to work eventually. PDAer’s well-being is corroded by being a cog within this system because the pressure to be productive and collaborative creates stress-based behaviours which can impact their health and development. This can have a significant impact on the entire family. It is not their choice, it is their nervous system going into the fight, flight, freeze, fawn, flop or friend response. It is the fight responses that are behind the violent and aggressive outbursts that we often see in PDA children. All humans in fight mode have very little control over their behaviours, and we need to shift our mindset to “why does my child feel so threatened?” This is not their character or personality, this is their nervous system tipping them into survival mode. Our children need to feel safe again so the conscious decision-making part of the brain (the frontal cortex) can come back online, and only then do they have the capacity to learn and have more control over their behaviour. 

Expectations of any kind, even non-verbal and implied expectations, trigger PDA children’s fight/flight responses, and they can not control that. Avoidance is not an active choice in PDA, they are not saying, “I don’t want to do that because I want to feel free. I don't want to be told what to do. I want to be autonomous”. Their bodies react biologically like their life is threatened. They feel like they are under threat when pressure and demands are placed on them. Avoidance is due to an unconscious drive to survive these perceived threats. The behaviours you see are not cognitive choices because they are lazy, difficult or manipulative. They are scared, even if they act angry and controlling. They need our help. How do we help someone who is pushing us away and angry at us? We build trust and safety. 

What do we do to support a PDAer?

  1. Let go of everything society has told you about parenting. That advice is not working as your child doesn’t follow neurotypical rules.
  2. Invest in understanding how your PDA child understands the world. 
  3. Develop deep respect for their need for autonomy. The sooner we accept that consideration for choice, freedom and autonomy are essential, the sooner healthier relationships can develop. 
  4. Accept that a PDA child will always need time, space and choice to manage their life in a way that works for them. PDA children carve out a life that works for them. They can not comply for the sake of complying and never will, but will often follow their morals and have a clear ethical view that they uphold.
  5. As children, PDAers require unconditional love and to be seen for the people they truly are underneath their neurobiology. The way they act when threatened is not their character. Nobody behaves well when in fight/flight mode. PDAers are in that state more often than others because demands and therefore threats are everywhere. They need the people who care for them to see them in high positive regard, especially when they are feeling unsafe, threatened and unable to control their bodies and emotions. 
  6. Give them time to grow and mature at their own pace. They don't need to keep up with everyone else. They don’t need to be doing the things that others are doing. They don’t need to be as productive or as social or as regulated as everyone else. They need to be safe and given the space to develop, grow and mature at their own pace, as pushing them will cause regression and often shut down development. Pushing almost always backfires. 
  7. Safety is always the number one priority. Create relational safety by being responsive to stress signs, reducing pressure, reducing demands, focusing on co-regulation, and helping the person you care about to feel safe in their body. PDAer have very vulnerable nervous systems and can easily feel unsafe. Nobody can learn or grow when they feel unsafe.
  8. PDAers can comply if self-directed and know why; it needs to make sense. Collaboration and cooperation are possible when they are working towards their own goals and it aligns with their values and morals. 

The quality and safety of the relationship you develop with your child is the strongest determining factor of how much you can help and support them. If your relationship sits on a base of trust, your PDA child is more likely to look to you for support and guidance. PDA parenting requires you to discard what you have been taught about parenting and learn a new framework. This does not mean that you hand over all decision-making and responsibility to your child as they are still a child, but it does require you to parent with clarity and integrity. 

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