Pathological Demand Avoidance and Negotiation: Why You Should Negotiate with Your PDA Child

Collaboration, Negotiation and Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA)

We’ve all seen the Hollywood movies.  There’s a hostage situation and the terrorists are making demands.

But the government’s stance is clear: “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

It’s not just about who is wrong and who is right…

It’s about setting a precedent.

To give in just once opens the door for further terrorism and future ransom demands.

Give them an inch and they will take a mile, and you will lose all control.

I believe there is a similar unwritten rule in traditional parenting approaches.

The general consensus seems to be that it is good to offer your child choices, but excessive negotiation can diminish your authority as a parent and lead to whatever you say being constantly challenged by your child.

When your child exhibits challenging behaviours, you are often told to be more consistent with rules and boundaries.

This is supposed to build trust:  you act consistent, the child can trust your consistency, and then their behaviour becomes more consistent.

But the only thing consistent about PDA children is that their behaviour is consistently inconsistent.

When a PDA child escalates, they often start demanding or negotiating.

This is when you should be firm around rules and boundaries, right?  To stay consistent and prove your trustworthiness?

But is this the best approach?

For a PDA child, it’s not.

In fact, where PDA children are involved, negotiating and collaborating, even in the heat of the moment, is actually recommended.

negotiate with your pda child

Why you should negotiate with your PDA child

Collaboration and negotiation are listed as helpful approaches for parenting an Autistic child with the Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) profile of Autism. 

Let’s look at the key reasons why you should negotiate with a PDA child.

1. To build trust

The traditional parenting methods of firm boundaries and consistency is not a good approach for building trust with a PDA child.

Pathological Demand Avoidance is rooted in anxiety which leads to an inherent lack of trust and an obsessive need for control. 

When a PDA child is escalated and trying to control a situation, a firm stance by a parent confirms the child’s worst fear: they have NO control, and a meltdown ensues.

To build trust with a PDA child, a more equal relationship between child and adult based on collaboration, negotiation and respect is recommended.

This requires the parent to negotiate who can control what in any given situation and sometimes even relinquish a certain amount of control to the child.

Parenting a PDA child challenges parenting norms, and some parents dislike the idea of relinquishing the parental control that traditional parenting says they are rightfully entitled to.

But consider this, no one understands the precious value of control better than a PDA child, so what better way for parents to demonstrate their trustworthiness than to surrender some precious control to their child.

I know what you are thinking, doesn’t a PDA child have to learn that they can’t control every person and every situation?

Of course they do, and they can, but not until they feel safe.

And they will never feel safe if they don’t trust you.

You might be worried that any control you relinquish will never be regained and you will be continually subject to the control of an anxious child.

But this has not been my experience. A PDA child who trusts you will not be constantly fighting for control the way a PDA child who doesn’t trust you will.

Trust is key, and negotiating with your PDA child can increase trust.

parenting a pda child
Related: Why Your PDA Child Needs a Best Friend, Not a Parent

2. To end a meltdown

PDA involves the avoidance of everyday demands of life, but the use of ‘social’ strategies to avoid, such as distraction, excuses, procrastination, and countering demands, often has us drawn into a negotiation with our child before we even realise.

Autistic children can escalate very quickly and sometimes parents are caught by surprise. 

Sometimes a PDA child might try to self-regulate (calm themselves down) by making a demand from a parent (in order to meet their need for control).

Because the child is escalated, often these demands are made in a most impolite manner, and parents (especially when caught by surprise) refuse to comply with the demand on the instinct of not wanting to reward that kind of behaviour.

When a parent refuses or tries to redirect, the child might counter with another demand and the parent finds themselves drawn into a negotiation that they never intended to participate in.

Add some on-lookers and some disapproving glances and you have a recipe for an epic meltdown.

However this is exactly the moment when you need to relinquish control so that your child can feel more in control and self-calm.

It may not be practical to give in to the first demand (often they are bizarre or even outrageous) but negotiating at this point and agreeing to any demand you can accommodate will bring the meltdown to an end while ‘standing on your principles’ will only amplify it.

3. As part of a flexible and adaptive approach to parenting a PDA child

The PDA Society recommends a tailored approach for parenting a PDA child.

Low arousal approaches, which keep anxiety to a minimum and provide a sense of control, are good starting points when thinking about what works for PDA. A partnership based on trust, flexibility, collaboration, careful use of language and balancing of demands works best.

PDA Society

The PDA Society has chosen the giant panda as their ambassador and the word ‘PANDA’ spells out a helpful mnemonic to help parents remember the main PDA strategies:

Pick Battles
Anxiety Management
Negotiate & Collaborate
Disguise & Manage Demands

The ‘N’ in ‘PANDA’ stands for Negotiate and Collaborate and the PDA Society lists some helpful tips about how you can go about this:

  • Keep calm
  • Proactively collaborate and negotiate to solve challenges
  • Fairness and trust are central

For other helpful tips, read more about the PDA PANDA support strategies.

PDA PANDA strategies
Related: How to Use the PDA PANDA Support Strategies

Pathological Demand Avoidance and Collaborative Problem-Solving Approaches

Including negotiation and collaboration in your toolkit for parenting a PDA child will see you negotiating in the moment as well as participating in proactive negotiation.

Parents can learn proactive negotiation skills from collaborative problem-solving programs such as the Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS) approach by Dr Ross Greene.

While this approach is not PDA specific (it was created for use with any child with concerning behaviours), it has been used successfully by many parents of PDA children.

Some minor tweaking to make the model PDA friendly is recommended such as:

  • the addition of declarative language (especially when drilling or questioning)
  • a high amount of ‘Plan C’ to reduce anxiety
  • being aware of Autism-specific skill deficits (eg difficulties with social interaction, language processing, emotional regulation and sensory processing) when assessing lagging skills.

You can learn more about the CPS model from the Lives in the Balance website.

man's finger pointing to blue question mark 'can a child have pathological demand avoidance without autism'
Related: Can You Have PDA Without Autism?

Final thoughts about why you should negotiate with your PDA child

Collaboration and negotiation are listed as helpful approaches for parenting an Autistic child with the PDA profile of Autism.

Negotiating with your PDA child helps build trust, manage meltdowns and is overall a better way to approach parenting an Autistic PDA child.

Collaborative problem-solving approaches such as the Collaborative and Proactive Solutions model help parents lean the skills they need for successful win:win outcomes with their child.

Have you had success negotiating with your PDA child? Share your experience in the comments section below.

PDA aware therapist
Related: 3 Ways to Bring Up PDA with Your Allied Health Professional

Articles Related to Why You Should Negotiate with Your PDA Child:

Can You Have PDA Without Autism?

Parenting a PDA Child: Why Your PDA Child Needs a Best Friend, Not a Parent

PDA and the Low Demand Approach: Bad Parenting? Or Harder than it Looks?

How to Use the PDA PANDA Support Strategies

The PDA Glossary of Terms

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