Understanding Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) in Neurodivergent Children

Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) is usually seen as profile on the autism spectrum.  However my own daughter who has an ADHD profile suffers from PDA to a high level, this then makes me ask questions around wether she is AuDHD or if that PDA is common in other areas too - still working that one out!

PDA is characterised by an extreme avoidance of everyday demands and expectations due, often a simple request like "brush your teeth" can put the child into fight, flight, freeze or fawn. Children with PDA often exhibit behaviours that can be challenging for parents and educators to manage, but understanding these behaviours and employing low demand language can help maintain a child's regulation and overall well-being.

What Does PDA Look Like?

Children with PDA may exhibit a range of behaviours that stem from their need to avoid demands and expectations. These behaviours can include:

  •  Avoidance: Going to great lengths to avoid demands, including creating distractions or excuses.
  •  Controlling Behavior: Insisting on having things done their way or needing to control situations and people around them.
  •  Meltdowns and Shutdowns: Experiencing extreme anxiety or distress when demands are placed on them, which can lead to emotional outbursts or withdrawal.
  •  Social Manipulation: Using charm, distraction, or other tactics to avoid doing something.
  •  Surface Sociability: Appearing social and communicative but lacking depth in interactions and struggling with genuine social connections.
  •  Role Play and Pretend: Escaping into role play or fantasy to avoid real-world demands.

i must add here that PDA children can be excellent at Masking this behaviour so often can return home from learning or playdates absolutely exhausted as a result of having to hide their battles. 

The Role of Low Demand Language

Using low demand language is a key strategy in supporting children with PDA. This approach involves minimising direct demands and expectations, thereby reducing anxiety and helping the child feel more in control. Here are some techniques to incorporate low demand language into interactions:

1. Indirect Requests

Instead of giving direct commands, phrase requests in a way that offers choice and control to the child. For example:

  •  Direct Demand: "Put on your shoes."
  •  Low Demand Language: "Do you think you might like to wear your shoes now, or in a few minutes?"

2. Offering Choices

Providing choices can help a child feel empowered and less controlled. Ensure the options are both acceptable outcomes for you. For example:

  •  "Would you like to start with your math homework or your reading assignment today?"

3. Using Conditional Phrasing

Phrasing requests conditionally can make them feel less like demands. For example:

  •  "If you feel ready, it would be great to see you tidy up your toys."

4. Neutral Language

Use neutral, non-directive language to suggest activities. For example:

  •  "Some people find it rally nice to brush their teeth before bed."

5. Distraction and Redirection

Gently distract or redirect to move past a demand without confrontation. For example:

  •  "I wonder if there's a fun way we can get ready for bed. Maybe you can show me your superhero moves while we put on pajamas."

Practical Examples of Low Demand Language

Here are some specific scenarios and how to handle them using low demand language:

Getting Ready for School

  •  Instead of: "Hurry up, put on your uniform."
  •  Try: "I wonder if we can beat the clock today while getting dressed."

Homework Time

  •  Instead of: "Do your homework now."
  •  Try: "I’m curious about what you’re learning in math. Do you want to tell me about it while we look at your homework together?"

Meal Times

  •  Instead of: "Eat your vegetables."
  •  Try: "These carrots look really crunchy. Do you want to try one and see if it makes a loud crunch?"
  • Instead of "Are you hungry?" 
  • Try: " If I make pasta will you eat some" 

Benefits of Low Demand Language

Using low demand language can significantly reduce anxiety and resistance in children with PDA. This approach helps to:

  •  Increase Cooperation: By reducing the pressure of demands, children may feel more willing to engage in the requested activities.
  •  Reduce Meltdowns: Lowering the demand can prevent the anxiety that leads to emotional outbursts.
  •  Enhance Relationship: Building a sense of trust and safety with the child can strengthen your relationship and improve overall communication.
  •  Promote Independence: Encouraging choice and control helps children develop a sense of autonomy and self-regulation.

Parenting a child with Pathological Demand Avoidance requires patience, understanding, and flexibility. By using low demand language and recognising the underlying issues that drives demand avoidance, you can create a more supportive and regulated environment for your child.

Remember, the goal is not to eliminate all demands but to present them in a way that reduces stress and promotes cooperation. Through empathy and thoughtful communication, you can help your child navigate their world with greater ease and confidence.



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