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Many parents find themselves in unnecessary battles trying to get their children to fit certain norms

Parenting exceptional children: Article four in a special six-part series - a strengths-based approach to raising autistic, ADHD and other neurodivergent children

Because neurodivergent children experience the world differently, frequently their needs and preferences differ from society’s expectations in a neurotypical world. As a result, many childhood expectations, such as doing homework, attending sports, wearing uniforms, going out socially and even home routines, can become contentious issues.

Many parents find themselves getting caught into unnecessary battles with their children trying to get them to do things or to fit into certain norms and standards.

Coupled with this, many children have a profile called pathological demand avoidance or PDA (which can be more empathetically framed as a persistent drive for autonomy). Being PDA means children can experience demands, requests and even questions as stressful and anxiety-provoking and respond better when given space to express their own needs and choices.

Sometimes, PDA children are unhelpfully described as being ‘oppositional’ or ‘non-compliant’ or ‘having behaviour problems’ which suggests incorrectly that they are wilfully behaving that way. More accurately, PDA children experience repeated demands as a threat to their autonomy and this invokes a ‘fight, flight or freeze reaction’. A fight reaction could be resisting or arguing back, a flight reaction could be refusing or avoiding and a freeze reaction could be shutting down or becoming mute. When the demands become too overwhelming many children experience emotional meltdowns, which are stressful for everyone.

Collaborative parenting

Many parents with PDA children find it useful to practise collaborative or ‘low-demand’ parenting, which aims to reduce your child’s agitation by removing as many demands as possible and making the home a safe and relaxing place for them. Low-demand parenting doesn’t mean you have no rules and dismiss all expectations of your child, but it does mean you keep your rules to the most important ones (eg safety) and that you promote your child’s autonomy in making their own decisions where possible.

Many of the expectations and rules that parents have come from neurotypical norms that don’t fit for their children. Often, parents themselves can feel pressure to fit in with what ‘society expects’ or what ‘other parents are doing’ and cause unnecessary stress for them and their child. For example, it may not fit for your child to participate in popular team sports or attend sleepovers, and they may be happier doing martial arts or attending a drama group or a small, home-based gathering.

Collaborative parenting means that you work hard to understand your child’s needs and that you attune your expectations to match their preferences and to what they can achieve. Once the pressure is removed and children experience acceptance, they often discover their own intrinsic motivation and learn to do things at their own pace and in their own time.

Tune into your child’s experience

If your child is struggling or refusing to do something, take time to understand what is going for them. Try to step inside their mind and experience the world as they do. For example, if your child is not eating a new food, perhaps they have a sensory aversion to the new texture, taste or smell. Or if they are refusing to go to a family event, perhaps they feel stressed by the pressure of everyone asking them the same social questions or perhaps they hate the noisy, busy place where it is taking place. Or perhaps your child struggles trying out fashion changes, because they only feel comfortable wearing the same ‘safe’ clothes daily

You might have to be a good detective to figure things out what underpins your child’s behaviour. And often children are unable to describe what is going on for them. Certainly, if they do reveal something, it won’t be in the heat of a conflict but rather at another time when they are relaxed such as when you are playing or walking the dog together. This is another reason for prioritising relationship times in your family routines so you can become more connected to your child and better able to understand what is going on for them.

Use indirect language

In guiding children, it can sometimes work better to be indirect. Rather than saying “please get dressed now”, which could be experienced as a stressful demand, it might be more effective to casually point out, “l left your favourite clothes on your bed” to give your child space to make their own decision. Or rather than saying “Show your cousin your video games”, which might pressure an already socially anxious child, you might say “Look, your cousin has arrived to play”, which gives them space to make their own decisions as to what games to play.

Even questions and sometimes praise can be experienced as demands and you can avoid this by changing your language. On greeting, rather than asking lots of questions about the school day you can make a comment (eg “I see the kids were wearing football jerseys today”), and give them space to contribute to conversation if they choose. Or rather than giving “over the top” verbal praise if they tidy up (which can be experienced as a stressful demand to repeat the behaviour), you can be more subtle and give them a thumbs up or a hug they like or say a soft thank you which might feel as more genuine and collaborative.

Prepare in advance

Preparing your child for transitions can really help them manage. However, different preparations work for different children. For example, a picture chart describing the steps of the morning routine, might help one child more easily visualise this transition (and also mean you avoid using many verbal demands and reminders). However, other children might experience the chart as another demand constantly in front of them and instead need indirect reminders of what is to be done next – “Your breakfast is on the table” or “Your bag is at the door”.

Think through what works best for your child. For example, when coming up to a stressful social event is it best to tell them a good bit in advance so they can prepare or to simply remind them in the morning? For some, visualising relaxing times after demanding tasks can help – “I know it is hard going out to the shops, but afterwards we can chill back at home watching movies”.

Adjusting expectations

  • Reducing demands and adjusting your expectations based on your child’s needs can reduce unnecessary stress and create a much more harmonious home.
  • Rather than battling with his daughter to eat more varied foods, which was causing a stressful standoff, John accepted her more limited diet and gave her a vitamin supplement so he was less worried about nutrition. He realised that her eating the same favourite foods daily helped her feel safe and contained.
  • In the morning routine, Alice decided to dress her son in front of TV where he was more relaxed and less aware of the sensory irritation putting on his clothes on.
  • Julie and Dave decided to travel separately to extended family social events so one could leave with their autistic son before he got too agitated and the other could remain with their other children so they did not miss out.
  • Rose’s daughter found the chaos of the schoolyard overwhelming. With the help of the school, it was arranged that if Rosie needed a break some days from the yard, she could go to school library with the special-needs assistant.
  • Welcoming a dog into the family made a big difference for Marge’s son. He would play with the dog for hours and they would both take him on an evening walk, when they had the best chats.
  • Tom relaxed his rules about video games as he could see this was when his son really relaxed after school. Tom joined in the video games at the weekends and his son loved to teach him how to play them.

Parenting exceptional children

  • Part 1
  • Part 2
  • Part 3
  • John Sharry is clinical director of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology He is delivering a three-week online course, ‘Parenting neurodivergent children’, in April and May on Mondays or Thursdays. See solutiontalk.ie
  • Article five in the series will be published next week and will look at how parents can problem solve challenges and manage meltdowns

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