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

If you frequent any of the online Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) parenting groups, there’s a good chance you’ve heard about PDA and the low demand approach.

It is a concept that is increasingly being implemented by parents of PDA children to help ease the pressure on their burnt-out families and help PDA kids recover from trauma caused by previous well-meaning (but misguided) ‘helpful’ approaches.

Low demand parenting is certainly a road less travelled compared to the well-worn path of traditional parenting.  It also requires going against the grain of ‘successful and proven’ parenting wisdom.

So what is behind this parenting shift among PDA families?

Is the low demand approach for PDA bad parenting? Or harder than it seems?

woman with brown hair and light blue shirt pointing downwards with both hands.  pda and the low demand approach

What is the low demand approach for PDA?

Pathological Demand Avoidance is a behavioural profile of Autism characterised by an avoidance of what are considered ‘everyday’ demands and expectations to an extreme extent.

PDA is believed to be driven by high anxiety and an intolerance of uncertainty.

PDA children present as highly controlling with rapid mood swings and intense emotional dysregulation.  They also tend not to respond to conventional parenting, teaching or support approaches.

The low demand approach for PDA entails reducing or eliminating all demands and expectations placed on a PDA child in an attempt to try and alleviate their extreme anxiety, overwhelm and dysregulation.

Under a low demand approach, any pressure on your PDA child to do things they typically find demanding, for example attending school, bathing, or brushing teeth, should be reduced or removed and any restrictions that your child particularly struggles with, such as limiting access to technology or certain foods, should be set aside or not enforced.

Basically, you reduce or remove anything your child finds too demanding on the premise that this will reduce the pressure and stress on their brains and bodies, allowing them (and yourself) a more calm and manageable existence.

In order for this to happen, a low demand approach (also referred to as ‘going low demand’, ‘low demand parenting’ or a ‘demand detox’) may need to be maintained for months, years, or in some cases, indefinitely.

It’s hard to say where the low demand approach originated, but the earliest published reference I have found is from the PDA parenting blog, The Learning Curve, which in 2018 published a post titled “The Principles of a No Demand or Low Demand Approach & How it has worked for Us.” 

Unfortunately I can’t provide a link as the blog is no longer available to read online, but other PDA parenting blogs that mention a low demand approach reference The Learning Curve’s blog post as the origin of the concept.

It’s also possible the low demand approach stems from the Ross Greene Collaborative Problem Solving principles.

His ‘Plan C’ approach involves setting aside unsolved problems when your child lacks the skills to solve the problem in a collaborative and proactive way.

In the case of a PDA child, their lagging skills in the areas of emotional regulation and anxiety management may have you ‘Plan C-ing’ the vast majority of things.

Is the low demand approach for PDA an excuse for bad parenting?

Explaining the low demand approach to friends, family, and even your child’s supporting professionals can leave you on the receiving end of a quizzical look or a raised eyebrow.

Why? Because it goes against traditional parenting wisdom and other Autism support strategies.

The low demand approach is not currently a recognised helpful approach for PDA or Autism and you certainly won’t find any peer-reviewed research on the topic either.

To an untrained eye, it may look like you’ve surrendered your parental authority to your child and are resigned to let them do (or not do) whatever they want.

No rules, no restrictions, and no consequences?

Surely this is the epitome of bad parenting.

However the low demand approach is not sitting idly by and letting your child do as they please.

When skills are lagging, someone needs to pick up the slack, and that role will always fall on the parents.

Why the low demand approach for PDA is harder than you think!

Don’t let the name fool you, low demand parenting does not make parenting any less demanding.

Creating a low demand environment for your PDA child requires balancing complex issues and problems.

A unique approach is required for every PDA child.

Then there’s also the following difficulties that make implementing a low demand approach harder than you think.

1. There’s no rule book and no professional support

A clear step-by-step instruction manual for how to implement a low demand approach does not exist.

If you’re looking for an allied health professional to guide you through your low demand parenting journey, you’ll probably come up empty handed too.

Awareness of Pathological Demand Avoidance is limited, even in allied health circles, and some still doubt its existence.

Any parent who tries a low demand approach is stepping out on their own and must find their own way.

2. Judgement and opposition from others

Attempting a low demand parenting approach can be met with judgement and opposition from others.

Many people don’t understand Pathological Demand Avoidance and thus cannot grasp how the low demand concept can be helpful.

Then there are the naysayers, who imply that maybe we as parents just haven’t tried hard enough.

They smirk at our insistence that award-winning parenting programs and professionally supported Autism interventions don’t work for our children and remark how ‘convenient’ it must be to give up on parenting all together.

Whereas we, as parents of PDA children, know how inconvenient parenting against the grain can be.

3. Societal hurdles and obstacles

You may think the society you live in gives you the freedom to parent as you choose.

But does it really?

Do you have the freedom to pause your child’s schooling for six-months or a year while you trial a low demand approach?

The law says kids must be in school.  ‘Healing from trauma’ or ‘working on mental health’ is not seen as an acceptable exemption in the government’s eyes.

Parents may also be bound by court orders and co-parenting agreements when relationships break down.

4. Requires fighting personal fears

Low demand parenting takes guts.  Not just because you must overcome the difficulties listed above, but because you will also be fighting your own personal fears.

Making radical changes for the future benefit of your family requires great courage.

It’s scary.

Here are some articles from other PDA parents discussing common fears about the low demand approach:

‘Demand Detox’. Removing all demands for children with Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome by lovepda

No Demand or Low Demand Approach to PDA with Siblings by A Dash of PDA

How Will They Ever Cope as Adults? by Riko’s Blog: PDA and More

The increasing uptake of the low demand parenting approach among PDA families

Today, parents of PDA children are turning to online parenting groups and courses run by other PDA parents to find out more about the low demand approach for PDA.

Why would they do this when they run the risk of being labelled a bad parent and face all the extra difficulties we discussed above?

There is no simple answer because every PDA family’s situation is individual and complex.

Parents of PDA children don’t decide to take up the low demand approach on a whim.  It comes after exhaustive searches for help from all the usual places.

These parents have attempted traditional parenting approaches, as well as proven Autism strategies.  They have sought out allied heath professionals and child mental health services.

It didn’t help.

In some cases, it made things worse.

Often, a low demand approach is initiated at a point of desperation when a PDA child is on the verge of, or experiencing, a breakdown and an ‘outside of the box’ solution is all parents have left.

It is not a be-all and end-all solution. It is a tool to reset, revive and recover PDA children and their families to a point where proper PDA-specific solutions and strategies can be adopted.

Final thoughts about the low demand approach for PDA

The low demand or demand detox approach for children with the Autism profile of Pathological Demand Avoidance is increasing in popularity among parents of PDA children.

Some see removing all demands, expectations and rules from a child as bad parenting or shirking parental responsibility.

However, difficulties such as no clear instructions or professional support for how to proceed with such a plan, having to overcome other people’s objections and societal restrictions, plus pushing through your own personal fears, show that the low demand approach is actually a lot harder than you might think.

Regardless of your personal opinion about whether the low demand approach for PDA is bad parenting or harder than it seems, I think it is important to understand that at present the low demand approach is the only option available for many PDA families on the brink of burnout and break down.

Why this is the case is probably a better question to ask.

Further reading about parenting a PDA child:

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

How to Use the PDA PANDA Support Strategies

Why You Should Negotiate with Your PDA Child

3 Ways to Bring Up PDA With Your Allied Health Professional

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