PDA, which stands for Pathological Demand Avoidance or Pervasive Drive for Autonomy, is a type of autism where you see increased sensitivity to certain demands that can trigger the individual into fight/flight mode. Understanding that this comes from an intense need to maintain autonomy and that resulting behavior comes from being in a state of threat, interventions are most useful when they:
*Are designed to calm down the nervous system
*Help the individual maintain autonomy
Low-Demand Parenting is often recommended when a child has PDA (not to be confused with Permissive Parenting, which is not recommended for PDA because the lack of structure ultimately causes more anxiety). In this post, I take this a step further by encouraging a Low-Demand Households.
Why? Well for one thing, adults can have PDA too, and they don’t necessarily have kids. But regardless of how your family is made up, if anyone in the house has PDA, everyone is going to be affected. And if a child has it, chances are reasonably good that other family members have some PDA traits as well. In order to have a family system that is sustainable in the long run, everyone’s needs should be considered to avoid burnout.
Here are some key points to keep in mind when establishing a Low-Demand Household:
Goal is to keep everyone out of Fight/Flight - Family members learn to pay attention to each others triggers, sensory needs, and the things that bring them anxiety and try to do what they can to minimize them. Not all demands are necessarily going to trigger a panic response, so demands that aren’t causing panic do not need to be adjusted. Note that what feels like a demand may vary from day to day. Kids are not the only ones who are going to need breaks—so do parents! Keep in mind that modeling self-care and self-regulation for your child will help them get better at those things too. Speaking up for your own needs will be good for the whole family.
Collaborate as a Family - Family members talk together about things like which demands are avoidable and which are not. For example—does the family all need to eat dinner together at the table? Some families may say yes, others no. But there will always be some demands we can’t avoid, or times when not everyone in the family can have all their needs met at the same time, and we can make plans on how to make those things easier.
It is also totally valid for parents to bring up their own needs and you can ask kids for input on how to make it happen. For example, if the family is talking about how they will spend the weekend and a parent mentions that they would really benefit from being able to take a nap, the kids can help troubleshoot how to best make that happen. If they can feel like they are part of the solution, that’s going to help them feel important and valued. You could give some ideas and let them pick or come up with their own way of ‘helping’ such as keeping the dog away from the bedroom, shooing any neighbors away from the front door while mom is napping, etc.
Prioritize autonomy - No one is the ‘boss’ or ‘servant’ of anyone else in a low-demand household. Kids are given ongoing opportunities to gain new skills, get good at things on their own or with supports as needed, and speak their mind. They don’t get to call all the shots, but they always are part of the conversation. For example, let them join the discussion of how to do homeschooling. If getting up early is incredibly stressful for them, that can be worked into the school schedule so that it better fits their needs. Doing schoolwork is always going to be the expectation, but their input is important in figuring out how to do it in a way that works for them.
Use Declarative Language - This means speaking your thoughts aloud rather than making direct demands. Example: “I wonder if there is something that would feel good to your body to eat right now?” Instead of “Eat your lunch now!” This is another way of modeling to them how to work through conflicts and softens demands considerably.
Balance Flexibility with Clear Boundaries & Expectations - This is where the low-demand approach really differs from Permissive Parenting. The idea is that having unclear boundaries and expectations actually creates more confusion and anxiety, which we want to avoid as it makes us more prone to fight/flight. So for example, a parent might have a clear boundary that “sitting in front of the TV all day is not ok.” But in a low-demand household, the child would have plenty of choices about some other things they might do in the day. If they then decided to break the TV, there will be the natural consequence of not being able to watch it. Adding additional punishment is not likely to be in any way helpful.
Depersonalize Demands - Explain that some demands are not coming from you (the parents) but are things that everyone has to do (like brushing teeth) in order to have less anxiety down the road (dealing with rotten teeth). Instead of verbalizing those commands, make them part of the daily routines, put up post-its around the house, etc. to reduce uncertainty.