Pathological Demand Avoidance Challenges Parenting Norms
Read any resource about Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) and you will most certainly find an emphasis on how tailored approaches are necessary to obtain successful outcomes.
These tailored approaches also apply when parenting a PDA child.
It’s been said that PDA turns “parenting norms” upside down and today I want to discuss one such traditional parenting norm that I believe you should challenge if you have a child with Pathological Demand Avoidance.
It is the rule that parents should not try to be friends with their kids.
I want to go even further and emphasise that you should in fact aim to be a friend to your PDA child, rather than a parent.
I’ll just let that sink in.
Of course you will always be your PDA child’s parent, but I want you to consider shedding the traditional parental stereotype for a more relaxed role in your PDA child’s life that will lead to positive outcomes for both of you.
This idea is not just some crazy opinion I have, but is actually grounded in the helpful approaches for the PDA profile of Autism as published by the PDA Society.
Pathological Demand Avoidance and Traditional Parenting Conflicts
While research into the PDA behavioural profile of Autism is ongoing, numerous case studies have shown that traditional or typical parenting approaches have been unhelpful when seeking successful outcomes for PDA families.
Often traditional parenting strategies are not only unhelpful, but also detrimental.
Parenting courses are usually the first point of reference for parents when a child exhibits odd or challenging behaviour, and these programs offer very successful strategies for parenting neurotypical children and even certain neurodivergent children.
Unfortunately, these programs are not helpful when parenting a PDA child.
The more a parent tries to impart a circle of security around their PDA child, the more their PDA child pulls away.
Positive parenting programs may also seem like a step in the right direction, until you find out that the praise you are heaping on your PDA child actually gives them anxious feelings of expectation rather than positive feelings of encouragement.
When these programs inevitably fail, it’s often suggested to parents that maybe they didn’t quite implement the strategies properly, or perhaps they should start again and try harder next time.
These negative experiences have paved the way for parents of PDA children to develop their own unique parenting strategies.
Why Your PDA Child Needs a Best Friend, NOT a Parent
PDA strategies and ongoing research into PDA behaviours confirm that positive turning points for families with PDA children go hand in hand with radical changes to parenting approaches.
Aiming to be your child’s friend, rather than their parent, is certainly radical.
However, if you look carefully at certain behavioural observations about PDA and the recommended strategies to support those behaviours, you will find that a natural transition from a traditional parenting role to one of more of a friendship role is inevitable once these strategies are successfully implemented.
Here are six characteristics of friendship that are reflected in the helpful approaches for PDA.
1. Friends are equals.
Unlike family relationships, participants in a friendship are generally agreed to be of equal standing.
One of the many quirky characteristics of Pathological Demand Avoidance is that PDA children often don’t understand or accept social hierarchies. They see themselves on par with adults (including their parents and teachers) and often conduct themselves with the same amount of authority in any given situation.
Therefore parents of PDA children are encouraged to foster a more equal relationship between child and adult, based on collaboration, respect and fairness.
2. Friends don’t boss other friends around.
Nobody likes a bossy friend.
PDA children are very sensitive to demands and are often overwhelmed by the simple expectations of everyday life. Parents may appear bossy to a PDA child even when a parent feels they are being quite reasonable.
Minimising rules, plus offering choice and control, is a better way to parent a PDA child.
3. Friends don’t punish each other.
Sanctions and consequences are considered a necessary element of traditional parenting.
But friends don’t try to discipline each other with sanctions and punishments, for there is no quicker way to damage a friendship.
PDA children can have trouble learning from experience. To punish them when they can’t comply (vs won’t comply) can be just as damaging to a parent/PDA child relationship.
Therefore, parents are encouraged to help their PDA children learn in a more realistic way by discussing an incident in order to learn from it (once everyone is calm) or by allowing natural consequences to unfold.
4. Friends have shared interests.
Friends always have shared interests in common, it’s how they become friends in the first place.
Parents of PDA kids are encouraged to use their child’s special interests to engage them. Not just by listening to your child talk about their special interests, but in inventive ways such as role play and social stories using your child’s special interest as the theme.
Support your PDA child with the things that they’re interested in rather than trying to impose on them what you feel they should be doing.
5. Friends appreciate each other’s positive qualities.
Your positive qualities are what draws your friends to you. Failing to find positive qualities in a friendship will cause that friendship to fizzle out.
‘Positive PDA’, a term coined by the PDA Society, encourages parents to focus on the huge number of strengths and positive qualities that often also accompany PDA.
Words used to describe PDA children include intelligent, funny, creative, talented, resilient, and determined.
Look for these qualities in your PDA child and then highlight and celebrate them.
6. Friends trust each other.
Trust is an especially important element of any good friendship. Without it a friendship will only be superficial at best.
You cannot earn a PDA child’s trust in the same way that you would a typical child, no matter what the parenting courses say.
The helpful approaches for parenting a PDA child call on parents to establish a more equal relationship between child and adult, based on collaboration and respect. This, in turn, builds trust.
How to Begin a Friendship with Your PDA Child
Transitioning your relationship with your PDA child from the traditional model of parent/child to the more flexible model of friend/friend needn’t be complicated.
There is no need to act all ‘buddy-buddy’ towards your child and I warn you that fakeness or insincerity will only trigger more anxious feelings.
It is not necessary to have your child refer to you as something other than ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’ and I do not recommend that you announce to your child that you are ‘going to be friends from now on’.
It is all about adjusting your mindset.
Settling into these adjustments will take time and it will be a while before they become second nature to you.
Your ‘friendship’ may seem a little one-sided at first. You may feel that you are giving way more than you are getting from your PDA child and it is quite normal for this to occur as you build trust.
When you are unsure how to act in a situation, use what you know about friendship to check your behaviour: “How would I feel if a friend treated me this way?”
Eventually the main benefit you should hope to see is that the power struggle that once existed between you and your PDA child becomes a balance of power.
It is then you will notice that your once rigid parent/child relationship is more of a flexible friendship.
As trust continues to build you will be able to communicate better with your child about how each of you feels in certain situations.
You can invite them to share your interests and ask them to reveal some of the positive qualities they see in you.
You will have the freedom to ‘pull them up’ or ‘call out’ certain behaviours the way a friend might do (and don’t be surprised if you get pulled up in the same way).
Finally, you can take cues from your child about how they want to be treated and have the opportunity to let them know how you would like to be treated too, without it seeming like a demand.
Final Thoughts About Parenting a PDA Child
The flexibility and adaptation required to parent a PDA child can seem extreme to those unfamiliar with the Pathological Demand Avoidance profile of Autism.
To follow and implement the helpful parenting approaches as specified by PDA experts requires consciously going against traditional parenting norms.
It is easy to see why parents who choose to parent their PDA child in this way are often met with criticism from friends and family, especially when those friends and family have had their own success with traditional parenting approaches.
I’ve stressed that you should have friendship rather than traditional parenting in mind when parenting a PDA child in order to highlight the significant mindset adjustment required for positive outcomes for PDA children and their families.
It is not the way many of us would like to parent, but we choose to parent this way for the benefit of our family’s future.
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